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Arles Festival 2019: “Stumbling upon a treasure trove is like magic,” says Sam Stourdzé

Arles Festival 2019: “Stumbling upon a treasure trove is like magic,” says Sam Stourdzé

One of the must-see exhibitions of the 2019 Arles Festival is devoted to the avant-garde magazine Variétés. It features nearly 200 vintage prints by major figures in photography, such as Germaine Krull, Berenice Abbott, and Eli Lotar… We interview the curator of the exhibition and director of the Rencontres d’Arles, Sam Stourdzé.
Aenne Biermann, Clavier (Andante maestoso), 1928

What was Variétés? 

It was an avant-garde magazine published between 1928 and 1929 in Brussels, Belgium, by the art collector and gallery owner Paul-Gustave Van Hecke. During its rather short lifespan, Variétés produced only twenty issues. However, the journal captured the Zeitgeist, bringing together photography, fine arts, literature, and poetry. 

How did you come to rediscover this journal?

It was common knowledge to any photography specialist, but the real discovery was being able to get our hands on the complete photographic archives of Variétés. Every major avant-garde photographer was published on the pages of this magazine; and we suddenly realized that the archives of a Belgian institution located in Ghent contained the originals of the photographs printed in this periodical. The exhibition comprises precisely this newly rediscovered material.

What are in your opinion the defining traits of Variétés?

It was a hybrid journal that brought together different disciplines—which was one of the ambitions of the avant-gardes. The radical nature of Variétés consisted not in its layout, which remained rather basic, but rather in the selection of the contributing photographers and the diversity of the topics covered. Variétés published such photographers as Germaine Krull, Berenice Abbott, Eli Lotar, Man Ray, Florence Henri, and tackled all the major subjects of modernity: the world of industry, social issues, ethnography… It also revived interest in little-known historical figures, devoting, for example, a long article to Eugène Atget, a photographer of Paris, its ordinary citizens and its working-class architecture, and who died very shortly before the first issue of Variétés came out. 

Eugène Atget, Pharmacie Boulevard de Strasbourg, Paris, 1921

How would you define the style of photographs published in Variétés: is it documentary photography verging on experimental? 

Yes, if we tried to define it, we could say it is both, that is, documentary photography that tends towards experimental photography, and vice versa. We oscillate between several registers. What is certain is that, in the context of the era, the magazine demonstrated a radical vision: high- and low-angle shots, playing with relationships of scale… It deployed the whole language of modernity that was only being created at that time. This is a language which we have now mastered, in which we are fluent, and which continues to challenge us, but which, at the time, was truly revolutionary. 

You said, “There could be no better gift for our 50th anniversary” than this exhibition. Why do you think it is such an important part of the 2019 Rencontres d’Arles program?

It is the sort of exhibition you expect to find at Centre Pompidou or at the MoMA. Just imagine: 200 vintage prints by major figures in photography, exhibited for the first time. It is important to offer the public—who come here to look at new things—a way to anchor the new in history, to show them how the best artists of each generation blazed new trails… It is important to be able to look in the rearview mirror while moving forward into the future. It is a “gift” also because it is every curator’s dream to come across such a “find.” It is magical to one day stumble upon a treasure trove representing the best of photographic creation of the 1930s, an era when photography was asserting itself as an art form. 

Germaine Krull, Ciseaux fichés dans le sol Prospérité
László Moholy-Nagy, Funkturm Berlin, 1928

Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

Variétés, an avant-garde periodical

July 1 to September 22, 2019

Chapelle Saint-Martin du Méjan, 13200 Arles

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