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Lucien Clergue: The Arlesian

Grand Arles Express 2022 features a tribute to the photographer Lucien Clergue, co-founder of the Rencontres d’Arles.
Cocteau with sphinx wings, Testament of Orpheus, 1959 © atelier Lucien Clergue

Co-founder of the Rencontres d’Arles, with Jean-Maurice Rouquette and Michel Tournier, Lucien Clergue was born in 1934 in Arles. Having experienced a difficult childhood, he launched his career in photography very early on. “It was my mother who wanted me to be an artist; she enrolled me in a violin class,” he said in the documentary Lucien Clergue se raconte, filmed as part of the exhibition “Early Albums” at the Grand Palais, in Paris, in 2015–2016. It was his mother who gave him his first camera: “A modest black Bakelite box that would set everything in motion. I was thirteen, and immediately fell head over heels for photography. A life-long passion. I knew it was it almost from day one. … From the very start, I only considered photography from the point of view of artistic expression,” we read on his website. During a Feria d’Arles, he came up to Picasso and showed him his images. A friendship was struck between the two men that would never be broken. A self-taught photographer, Clergue became a member of the Academy of Fine Arts. He died in 2014. His works are on view today in major museums in France and abroad. As part of Grand Arles Express 2022, the city of Toulon is paying tribute to him with an exhibition split between three locations in the city (Maison de la photographie, Galerie des musées, Cabinet d’art graphique – Musée d’art de Toulon). Blind Magazine takes a look at three major themes in Clergue’s oeuvre.

The Gypsies

Draga in a polka dot dress, Stes Maries of the sea, 1957 © Atelier Lucien Clergue

At the end of World War II, Clergue was a cheerless adolescent: his house had been destroyed in an air raid and his mother had died prematurely.
Gypsies brought him freedom; their song and music distracted him. Their relationship with the outside world, with the public, was a revelation. Clergue understood that he too needed this connection in order to live. He built a beautiful photographic testimony to their daily life, their festivals, their fairground trades; he went on a pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and got inebriated with the “sons of the wind” who made him dream. There is no pity and no judgment in Lucien Clergue’s photographs of the Gypsies, but rather a desire to trace their movement, their energy, and the rhythm of their dance. Accepted as one of their own, he became the manager of the guitarist Manitas de Plata, sending him to concert venues as far away as New York. Iconic images, vibrant, with an intensity of gaze and posture, Clergue’s photographs inspired Jean Cocteau (with whom he was very close) to say of the Gypsy community: “They sing, they dance, they form a circle no one can penetrate unless the same weightless blood flows in their veins.”

The nudes of the sea

In Lucien Clergue se raconte, the photographer admits that his first nudes were in some way a reaction to the time he had spent, still as a teenager, taking care of his mother, of her tired, bruised body, which he washed and dressed. This made him want to “photograph young women full of life.” His first, awkward attempts at female nudes date back to 1956. But as soon as he started to photograph women sea-bathing or on the beach, he found himself in his element. Without a face, a woman becomes comparable to a living, timeless sculpture. Clergue’s first book, entitled Corps mémorable, was devoted to those images. Pablo Picasso did the cover, Jean Cocteau penned the preface, and Paul Éluard’s poems accompany the whole. The book became cult; it was so successful that it has been reprinted many times since.

Born of the wave, Camargue, 1966 © Atelier Lucien Clergue
Language of the sands, Camargue, 1971 © Atelier Lucien Clergue

The sands

Following his encounter with American photographers and the discovery of workshops in the US, which he imported to Arles, Lucien Clergue felt the need to have his creation validated by a university degree. Having had to support his family from a very young age and pay his mother’s debts, he had left school before he was able to graduate. Back in his native Camargue, he had become interested in beaches. He photographed the sand, the silt, the salt, water interacting with the mineral, the reflections of sun, and created unique graphic compositions. Clergue decided then to submit his first doctoral thesis, entirely in images, with no text. Roland Barthes, who was a member of the jury at the time, said of his images: “Clergue changes the level of perception of beaches. From a handful of sand, he creates a giant relief, abolishes the barrier of names: a blade of grass becomes a tree, a streak of grains of sand a whole mountain range. He thus thwarts the nominal perceptual prejudice, undoes and remakes identities and names, which is the very function of living knowledge…”

“Lucien Clergue, le méditerranéen”, exhibition at Maison de la photographie / Galerie des musées / Cabinet d’art graphique – Musée d’art de Toulon (in partnership with the Atelier Lucien Clergue and Grand Arles Express 2022), until September 18, 2022. Free admission.

Read More: A Master Of Style

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