An Old Place

By Cyril Neyrat

voyages-en-utopie.jpgVoyage(s) en Utopie. Image courtesy of Michael Witt

Jean-Luc Godard ran through the "imaginary museum" – and has ended up building one and moving in

For many people of my generation, culture was the big idea, the big opportunity or the big invention, the big secular faith. I remember leafing through Elie Faure's L'Histoire de l'Art and Malraux's books at the town hall library, and they offered the promise of knowledge because they traced a line from Lascaux to Goya, via African art... Which meant that anything was possible, we were saved.

The words are Serge Daney's, but could just as well have been Jean-Luc Godard's. From À bout de souffle to his exhibition running currently at the Centre Pompidou, Godard's museological idea of the relationship of cinema to the other arts has evolved under the influence of Andre Malraux's writings on art.

For a long time, the "imaginary museum" prided Godard with a fund and a method. Malraux's invention – culture as a collection of artworks taken out of context and brought together in an endless dialogue of forms – put an enormous store of visual quotations at the filmmaker's disposal, that he dotted through each of his films. And in so far as his writing offers a theory of the editing of such artworks, Malraux also supplied a method, applied by Godard again and again – from "Marianne... Renoir" in Pierrot le Fou to the juxtaposition of Macha Méril's fragmented body and Maillol's statues in Une Femme Mariée. In the '60s, the run through the "imaginary museum" was as fast as the tour of the Louvre made by the trio of Bande à Part. The flash inserts, the flicking through postcards in Les Carabiniers, the posters stuck on walls the camera slid past. The artworks that turn up in these films and enter into dialogue with living bodies are reproductions deprived of the time of their aura.


In the political and video '70s, Godard left the museum – but when he returned in the early '80s, it was to move in for good. Previously fund and method, the "imaginary museum" now became a model. Godard's cinema was no longer content to take from it the material for associations; it went further, inventing and building its own museum. Because cinema was "the art of the 20th century", Godard's museum added the moving images of history to the contents of Malraux's – its bequests coming not so much from the "imaginary museum" but from Mnemosyne Atlas, the work of another art historian, Aby Warburg. Forty years before Malraux, Warburg had revolutionised art history by juxtaposing statues of the ancient world, Renaissance paintings and anonymous photos; not adhering to any kind of chronology but, instead, to a logic of formal survival.

Where Malraux freed works of art from history, Godard plunged them back in, inviting sculptures and paintings from all eras to help cinema in its mission to reveal and reflect on the century: first of all with Passion, and its doomed attempt to create cinematic equivalents of famous paintings, chosen for their allegorical power from "great movements in the history of the world: oppression, conquest, etc"; and, above all, with the constellation of works orbiting around Histoire(s) du Cinéma, sketched out in the cinematic studio that was Passion and brought to a natural conclusion within the walls of the Centre Pompidou. Just as culture saved honest men of the post-war period, it, and the century, are in turn saved by museum-cinema.


It's sometimes easy to poke fun at the sepulchral tone and religious accents of Histoire(s) du Cinéma, exemplified by its line from Saint Paul: "The image will come in the time of the Resurrection". Godard's museum does have something of the crypt about it. An image rarely flourishes, but flickers, appears only to disappear against the dark background of recurring black screens. But more than a tomb, the film brings to mind an underground shelter in a time after a catastrophe. Images are luminous traces, escapees from the night of history that light it up. Godard reveals what cinema shelters – and shelters against – in the ambivalent expression he uses to define his art: "the shelter of time". Time of men and artworks, of which the museum preserves fragments – but also history's Saturnian hunger, the nightfall that condemns them to oblivion. Resurrection (secular) is none other than the promise of eternity mentioned by Daney, or in these phrases by Malraux: "The imaginary museum brings... an enigmatic release from time to all the artworks it elects. (...) The true museum is the presence in life of what should belong to death".

Shut up in his museum, Godard switches between the roles of brimstone merchant, prophet and guide. In the first movement of episode 3A – which bears the title of a book by Malraux, La Monnaie de l'Absolu – a condemnation of the war in former Yugoslavia borrows Hugo's words and tours the chamber of horrors, from Desdemona's murder in Welles's Othello to Edmund's last march in the ruins of Germany Year Zero, via Goya's Saturn and Disasters of War. Cinema as the last museum of a humanity without homeland? To think of museological salvation as the ultimate goal of an art form that has itself been one of the victims of the 20th century would be to neglect the fictional films Godard has made alongside his series of melancholy essays. While the latter settle into the post-historic eternity of resurrection, the other lineage, from Soigne Ta Droite to Notre Musique, has faithfully walked with history in the present. Reduced to their traces, sharing the same fate as their predecessors, these films in turn move into the shelter of essays.


Among the many wings added by Godard to Histoire(s) du Cinéma, The Old Place, made with Anne-Marie Miéville, has a status of its own. Taking the opportunity of a commission from MOMA, it makes the museological purpose of his life's work explicit. Having recorded the dreams and horrors of the 20th century, cinema has become an "old place" where all those who "refuse time, because they don't want to lose rank", find refuge. It's up to cinema to build its own refuge, and to welcome in images from the past; because "from Botticelli to Barnet, it's the same gaze, the same suffering" – a possible development of the "classic= modern" equation written on a blackboard in Bande à Part. And in the role of museographic patron saint, Malraux has been replaced by Walter Benjamin. Godard bestows on cinema the task Benjamin assigned to the historian: that of saving from oblivion images and men who were victims of history. In every image, wrote Benjamin, quoted by Godard and Miéville, "the past sets up a lightning-flash resonance with the present to form a constellation". In The Old Place, the flash through the history of the 20th century, of art and of cinema, becomes a journey to the stars – and the museum becomes a planetarium.

Voyages en Utopie, curated by Jean-Luc Godard, runs from 11 May-14 August:

Reprinted with kind permission from Cahiers du Cinéma.

Translated by Simon Cropper.