Lucien Clergue

Lucien Clergue
Lucien Clergue
Lucien Clergue
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a chance encounter with a legendary photographer and Pablo Picasso's closest friend

Transcript of Lucien Clergue

  • 82 83

    Art Art

    Evelina Ivanova Alexander Nishkov

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    The poet with a cameraTo Roland Barthes his works are a musical suite, to Jean Cocteau a collection of poems, and to Picasso paintings worthy of Renoir and Velzquez. But Im simply a photographer, states Lucien Clergue

    You must think Im a little bit crazy. Im the only photographer who doesnt use a studio and special lights, Lucien Clergue says apologetically as he stubbornly tries to fix a square piece of blue cloth above the door of his hotel room. With amazing agility for his 75 years, he then darts across to a glass table and snatches up the exposure meter. Light is everything it is my master, he says and looks at Calliopes face, illuminated by the lazy winter sun.

    Monsieur Clergue met his Bulgarian muse by pure chance after giving a talk about his friend Picasso in Sofia in February, which he visited at the invitation of Barouh&Partners. Her gaze is amazing. Its so deep and sad, the master confides. Changing the lens on his camera, he shyly turns to his model. Look straight at me, please, as if youre angry with me" he requests politely. "Now gently turn your head to one side and put your left hand in your hair. Excellent!

    The legendary French photographer has long since parted with the old Rolleiflex

    loaned to him by friends in 1952, but nothing in the world can make him give up his film camera for a digital one. I dont use Photoshop either. I dont even have an assistant, he explains, as he carefully writes Calliope, Sofia. 23 February at the end of the roll of black-and-white film, Then he looks up and, noting my embarrassment at the tears in his eyes, explains self-consciously: The moment was very special magic and beautiful. The silence in the room, her face so intense, her eyes

    The magic of the moment is present in all of Lucien Clergues photographs in his portraits of harlequins and child acrobats from a travelling circus, lively Roma musicians, female nudes, prints in the sand, frenzied bulls and fearless bullfighters. And all of them are ultimately about life, love, transience and death. Actually, I dreamed of being a violinist. I adored Bachs sonatas, their flawless structure. But when I was 13, my mother gave me a box camera and began to take pictures of the things I loved best

    my mother and my violin.But even his early photographs have

    nothing of the beginners naivety. His tableaux vivants (living pictures) of travelling circus artists are poetic, stark and powerful: they are performers in a performance that will never take place, on a horse cart without a horse, a fiddler in need of a string, a trapeze artist in need of a trapeze, and only the harlequin is as we know him a sad, doe-eyed dreamer contemplating his lost childhood and innocence.

    It is no accident that the image of children forced into adulthood dominates Clergues earliest photographs. Aged only seven, he encountered the horrors of war when his native Arles was bombed in 1943. The bombs destroyed his home and his mothers small fruit shop. Two years later, Nazi Germany capitulated, but he continued to be hounded by poverty and deprivation. Forced to care for his invalid mother by himself (his father had left them long ago), he abandoned school and his violin lessons and found a job

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    Art Art

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    in a factory in the port town of Arles.My mother was only 50 when she died.

    I still remember her frail body eaten away by disease, the photographer recalls. But this painful memory did not prevent him discovering the beauty of the female form later in life (Lucien Clergue himself likes joking that it was the 'deep neckline' of his violin teacher that actually fanned his curiosity). His photographs of female nudes veiled in water or fused with trees are full of life and light.

    Clergues fascination with the nude female body can be compared only to his love for bullfighting. I love bullfighting simply because I grew up with it. Children in Brooklyn play basketball in their neighbourhood, while in Arles everyone wants to be a bullfighter, he explains. In 1953, after a bullfight at the arena in his native town, Lucien Clergue first approached the man who would change his life forever. I literally pushed the photographs I had with me in Pablo Picassos face. He glanced at them and told me: I like them. I want to see more. That is how I started taking pictures of him and for him. I was only 18 at the time and Picasso became my parent, my god, my friend. This friendship would last for 20 years until his death.

    Picasso became one of Clergues favourite models he took pictures of the artist alone in his studio next to his paintings, statues, prints and ceramics, in his house with his whole family (his sons Paul and Claude, his daughters Maya and Paloma, his last companion in life Jacqueline), with a taxi driver in Nice, with his Italian tailor Sapone, and even comically squeezing the nipple of his breast on the beach in Cannes. Picasso liked my photographs of female nudes very much. When I first showed them to him, he slapped me hard to Pablo, slapping the back of your neck was a sign of ultimate approval. One day he told me on the beach at Cannes: Youve never taken pictures of nude men. Start with me and dont forget my breast. But what he liked best was posing for portrait photographs. He would look straight into the camera with his good, open and generous eyes. The eyes that saved my life. After a bullfight in Nice we went to a restaurant to have lunch. When we were leaving, he looked hard at me and told me: Youre ill. You must go to the doctor. I told him I felt great, but he insisted. The doctor told me that I had a gun about to go off in my stomach and that if I had come only a few hours later he couldnt say that he would have been able to save my life. I

    had to have emergency surgery for acute peritonitis. Three days later, I got a letter from Jacqueline with a cheque from Picasso for an amount equal to three of my salaries Pablo obviously didnt want see me alive but penniless.

    Pablo Picassos close circle of friends included the French poet and playwright Jean Cocteau, legendary film director Henri-Georges Clouzot and Surrealist poet Paul Eluard with whom Clergue also became friends. All of them left a deep imprint on his work, turning him into a poet with a camera, a painter of photographs, a composer of photographic suites. They infected Lucien Clergue with the bug of creative freedom, and on 13 December 1959 he left his job at the factory forever.

    In the half a century since then, his exhibitions of photographs of bullfights, landscapes, nudes, intertwined in religious stories and vibrant scenes of Roma life, have never left anyone unmoved. The Gypsies in my photographs are not just anybody. Five years before Picassos death I discovered Manitas de Plata, a true virtuoso of the guitar, and made him a star. In 1965, he gave a concert at New Yorks Carnegie Hall featuring flamenco singer Jos Reyes. The two are the founders of the Gipsy Kings. Ive known the

    members of the band ever since they were children. Clergue works not only in still photography but also in film. I am a would-be film director, he admits. In 1968, his short documentary Delta de Sel was shown at the Cannes Film Festival (but failed to win an award as that year the Festival was cancelled) and nominated for an Academy Award.

    Lucien Clergue is a wanderer by vocation, but he always returns home to his native Arles. I was born in the same hospital where Van Gogh went for treatment, LHtel Dieu. To me this is an omen, something like closing the circle. It is precisely thanks to its eminent citizen that Arles has become the photography capital of France. Lucien


    en C



    Nu, Cvennes (2000)

    Nu zbr, New York (1997)

    Nu de la mer (1966)

    Lucien Clergue et Pablo Picasso, Mougins (1969) Cardor

    Clergue with his Bulgarian muse Calliope

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    Clergue was surprised when in 1979 the Fren