Lucien Clergue’s first albums open his new exhibition at Grand Palais. It’s a highly-anticipated and emotional affair–his first retrospective in Paris, and the first to take place since his death in 2014.
Christian Lacroix, always Clergue’s close friend, has designed the exhibition’s decor Clergue’s taste in mind, filling the space with vibrant colors of the South and tile-patterned carpets from the Evêché at Arleh. However, it’s important to note that Clergue, ever the perfectionist, would’ve been rather critical of Lacroix’s effort–he would’ve said that he would never, ever, have designed his own exhibition like that!
Nonetheless, François Hébel and Christian Lacroix have created a terrific backdrop for Clergue’s work. From Arles to Paris, it’s among the most beautiful scenographie there is right now.
In a stunning ensemble, original prints are hung down a corridor alongside impressive fresques of herbs, alga, sand, carrion, and corn. Clergue imagined a language of sand and here, we find ourselves awestruck before his marvelous writing and calligraphic work, the characters etched in ink with burnt corn.
Clergue might have been a violinist, but a gift from his mother for his 15th birthday, a camera, changed his destiny.
He, who wanted make his mark on the world as a poet of photography, caught Picasso’s eye at a young age. Just a budding photographer, Picasso spots Clergue, recognizes his potential and encourages him to continue. Always succinct and to the point, Picasso asks to see Clergue’s work the moment they meet. It’s Picasso who will introduce Clergue to Cocteau.
Picasso designs the cover of Clergue’s first book Corps mémorables–its introduction written by Jean Cocteau–only to have it replaced before going to press with a piece by Clergue himself, who’s now well-known enough to represent himself.
The exhibition’s best feature is its presentation of seven albums never before seen–not even by those close to Clergue. Found in his studio after his death, these notebooks are real treasures. They’re seamstress catalogues in which the samples are replaced by photographs and annotated, Clergue describing everything, from architectural ruins to nudes. These notebooks shed light on the fact that as soon as the 1950s, Clergue had already imagined, with incredible clarity, his future work.
In this corridor of hung with photograhs, Clergue seems drawn by the somber side of things. One sometimes forgets that the friend of Picasso and Cocteau was in a difficult place during his early years. During the war, he had to flee his home with other children. He loses his mother at a very young age. We find such sadness in his photographs of the ruins of Arles, marked by the scars of Allied bombings on the Rhône’s bridges, and in his study of dead birds, carrion in the Camargue’s sand, and burnt corn.
This powerful, yet bleak work made Clergue’s friends sad, so, what an idea for him to brighten their spirits with a few nudes! Clergue was timid at first, photographing his models with their heads hidden. He took to it quickly, however, and his series « Née de la vague » is highly acclaimed, his nudes even illustrating Eluard and Saint John Perse’s books of poetry. These nudes are Clergue’s most popular works, drawing inspiration from Edward Weston’s tradition of the « Nu » (1936) in their concealed faces and voluptuous curves that mold beautifully with the oval forms of arms and legs. One’s eye is drawn more to the poetry of these shapes than to their nudity.
This exhibition reveals not only the talent of a great artist, but also grants us insight into a man described by those close to him as volcanic, working towards whatever he’d set his mind to with a fiery resolve. An autodidact, he would defend his photography thesis « Languages des sables »—a doctorate with no text, only images–before Roland Barthes. He was born in Arles and loved the city passionately, founding along with Michel Tournier and curator Jean-Maurice Rouquette what would become the most important photography festival in the world today, the Rencontres d’Arles. Clergue was a man that knew not only how to to receive, but also how to give to future future generations of photographers.
In addition to the themes touched on here, the thematic breath of Clergue’s work up until the 1980s is represented beautifully throughout this exhibition–Picasso, the Gitans, the « Toros, » his first nudes, and more.
Translated by Chris Gortmaker, Wesleyan University, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2015.