Exhibition Explores Widowhood, Home

No widows appear in the first image of Agnes Varda’s exhibition “Les Veuves de Noirmoutier” (“The Widows of Noirmoutier”) at the Carpenter Center’s Sert Gallery. Instead, just a table, long and bare, stands on an empty beach. Without human presence, the table looks out of place and useless, as if its only purpose were to disrupt the stretched smoothness of the coast. As the widows trickle in and out of the next four photographs, they circle around the table, leaning on it and then looking away, suggesting perhaps that they do not know how to treat the remains of a domestic life.

Agnes Varda, herself a widow, is a French photographer and filmmaker whose work forms part of the canon of French New Wave Cinema. In 2005, Varda directed a documentary on the French island of Noirmoutier, “Quelques Veuves de Noirmoutier,” a series of interviews with widowed women. That same footage, displaced and rearranged, makes up the exhibition at the Sert Gallery. In the gallery context, these encounters become at once personal and jarring, an intimate look at women to whom death has brought not only grief but also a new identity.

After the five photographs at the entrance of the gallery, the viewer passes into the main room, where fifteen video screens cover the back wall. Fourteen of these, all featuring interviews with widows, surround one large screen with footage of the same beach scene. The sound of waves permeates the entire gallery, interrupted occasionally by the melancholy note of a violin.

To hear the interviews, the viewer must sit down in one of the fourteen chairs placed in the middle of the gallery. Each chair comes with a set of headphones and a written English translation of the interview (originally in French). Arranged in a square, the pattern of the chairs mirrors the display of the interviews on the wall so that one faces the widow head on. It is as if Varda has invited the viewer to the widows’ table, into the secret realities of their daily lives. Varda never appears on the screen when questioning, so as not to disturb the intimate, seemingly direct conversation between viewer and widow.

And yet one is aware at all times of the other viewers and their widows. Focus on one screen does not shut out the others. As the viewer absorbs one tale, images from neighboring stories flicker in and out of his sight. The artifacts from one life—a bed, a photograph, a shot of the salt mines—encroach on the account of another. At times, sounds from the big screen break into the widow’s monologue. So while the widows speak of empty houses and long days spent in solitude, they are never alone in Varda’s exhibition. They belong to a collective built from misfortune.

Throughout the tales and across all screens run images of the landscape of Noirmoutier—flying seagulls, overgrown gardens and fishing boats—rooting the widows’ tales in the story of the island they will never leave. Just as they remain loyal to their husbands, the women remain faithful to the land on which they celebrated their love. Attachment to the land is an extension of their loyalty.

Being by the sea took on special significance for particular widows. A life based on the rhythm of the tides meant a life slowed by long periods of waiting. Their husbands were as tied by the ocean as by their marriage—they were fishermen, boat mechanics, salt miners. The widows waited for days, sometimes months, while their husbands lived with the sea. And still now, each widow waits to be joined with her husband, not by his return but by her death. In the words of one: “It’s long.”

—Staff writer Madeleine M. Schwartz can be reached at mschwart@fas.harvard.edu.