Christian Hippolyte François Georges Bouche-Villeneuve changed his name to Chris Marker, he said, because it fitted more easily on his passport. That wasn’t literally true, of course, but he was making a point. Chris Marker was not just a pseudonym; it was an act of erasure. He rendered himself invisible. For the last 50 years of his life, he declined almost all interviews and would not allow himself to be photographed. The consequence of that extreme act of self-effacement is that one of the most original and groundbreaking artists of postwar Europe is scarcely known to a wide public. Marker’s adopted name could not have been less apposite: leaving his mark was the least important element of his artistic practice.
That may be about to change. Next month sees the opening of an exhibition devoted to the mysterious and mischievous Marker at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. As well as introducing the public to his highly respected films, the show aims to give a more complete picture of a man whose innate curiosity and natural eclecticism led him far and wide, geographically and philosophically.
It is an homage that Marker, who died two years ago at the age of 91, would surely enjoy: his stark photographs, cerebral texts, striking designs and experiments with new media will be on display, mashed up and in conversation with one another. “The purpose of the exhibition is to show as many different elements of his art as possible,” says curator Chris Darke. Playful blending, rather than chronological demarcation, will be the keynote.
Marker was born in Paris in 1921, fought in the Resistance, and rose to relative prominence as an older member of the French New Wave of film-making in the 1950s and 1960s. His most famous work, to this day, is 1962’s La Jetée, a short black-and-white science fiction fable of remarkable freshness and originality. The audacity of its plot, featuring a time-travelling survivor of the third world war who is obsessed by the memory of a woman at a pier at Orly airport, is matched by Marker’s experiments with form, using montages of still photographs to drive the story. (The film is much prized by cinephiles, and was the inspiration behind Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys in 1995.)
“It came from a different angle from the work of the other New Wave directors, such as [François] Truffaut and [Jean-Luc] Godard,” says Darke. “In fact, it was his only straightforward fictional film. What really interested him was documentary essay film-making, which was what set him apart from the others, and he ploughed that field all the way through to the 1980s.”
La Jetée attracted plaudits from critics but Marker had already accomplished much by the time he turned his attention to films. As a writer, he had focused on travelogues, book reviews, pieces on politics, and he also took photographs on his travels. He seemed to be interested in everything. A postwar flâneur, I ask Darke? “No, that is not the right word. The flâneur was a disinterested figure, and Marker was certainly not that. He sought out the trouble spots – Cuba, Korea, Israel – and was fascinated by those societies which were in a state of flux.”
Marker’s decision to eschew the trappings of cultish celebrity was taken early, around the time of La Jetée. “He wanted to preserve his own space, free of the demands of the media, especially towards the later part of his life,” says Darke. “And that had interesting results for those people for whom his work was important. If you wanted to find out about Chris Marker, it was never served on a plate for you. He would throw objects and artefacts around the place, and if you really wanted to find out about him, you would simply follow his work.”
His following was not at celebrity level but it was engaged and devoted. On the day that Marker died in July 2012, says Darke, there were two top trending topics on Twitter: the Olympic Games and the death of Chris Marker. “That is mind-boggling,” he adds. “That invisible band of acolytes of his was multi-generational and genuinely global.”
Scattered throughout the exhibition will be examples of Marker’s most celebrated series of photographs, Staring Back: intimate, closely cropped, black-and-white portraits that cover more than half a century. Some of these are the closest Marker gets to overt emotion. “It strikes me as peculiar that our greatest essay film-maker should traffic so willingly in the enigmatic, the borderline sentimental, and the faux-naïve,” ran an otherwise sympathetic review in Film Comment magazine when a book of the photographs was published in 2007.
In another section of the show, Marker’s experiments with new media are highlighted: work with CD-ROMs from the 1980s are described as “cut and paste versions of the internet” by the gallery’s assistant curator Habda Rashid. “In effect we are dealing with someone who encountered all the media that we take for granted today, as they emerged,” adds Darke. “At the time he was born, cinema was silent, radio was only just getting started as an important national medium, TV was nowhere to be seen. The idea of global travel, even after world war two, was not yet being promoted via the tourist industry.”
The more one learns about Marker’s life, the more likeable he gets. His was not a sour reclusiveness but a playful one. After the war, he used occasionally to play piano in a bar, to make ends meet. Darke, who knew him for 13 years and made a short film about him, says that many of his habits and tendencies to privacy were a result of his years in the Resistance.
“He once said to me, ‘I am a stickler for punctuality, because if you were in the Resistance and you turned up late, you were dead.’ Clandestinity suited him. The thing that most obsessed him was the idea of individual freedom. But he was from that generation of thinkers that realised the existential weight of that declaration of freedom, who believed that you were only free in as much as you accepted responsibility for your acts.”
In 1963’s Le Joli Mai, excerpts from which will be on show at Whitechapel, Marker, returned from his travels, attempted to take the pulse of his own nation. He conducted a series of vox pops in Paris aimed at establishing whether people were “happy” or not. This was a new, more artful kind of documentary, using vérité techniques, but also beautifully photographed. “What he was interested in was the way people’s personal and political lives overlapped,” says Darke.
The show’s curators have found the goodwill generated by the show “breathtaking”, says Rashid. “Because he was himself such a generous collaborator, people want to be generous to his legacy,” she says, telling of countless offers of co-operation with the exhibition. “He was pretty unique,” adds Darke. “You talk about Godard, who was a wonderful film-maker, but this was a different level of achievement.
“He could be rather puckish,” he replies when I ask what it was like to spend time with Marker.
“He erected this wall of invisibility but he enjoyed teasing. There was no questioning his powerful intellect. But he didn’t like ponderousness or intellectual snobbery. He was very intrigued by the young people who came to his work. That gave him a sense of rejuvenation. His energy was extraordinary but it came from a true commitment to a life’s project.”
“Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat”, is at the Whitechapel Gallery, April 16-June 22; whitechapelgallery.org. A series of Marker’s films will be shown at the Whitechapel Gallery, Barbican Cinema and Ciné Lumière during April and May
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