Lucien Clergue, Saltimbanque, Danseuse, Arles, 1955
Lucien Clergue was born in Arles, France. At the age of 7 he began learning to play the violin, and after several years of study his teacher admitted that he had nothing more to teach him. Clergue was from a family of shopkeepers and could not afford to pursue further studies in a college or university school of music, such as a conservatory. In 1949, he learned the basics of photography.
Four years later, at a corrida in Arles, he showed his photographs to Spanish painter Pablo Picasso who, though subdued, asked to see more of his work. Within a year and a half, young Clergue worked on his photography with the goal of sending more images to Picasso. During this period, he worked on a series of photographs of traveling entertainers, acrobats and harlequins, the «Saltimbanques».
Lucien Clergue and Pablo Picasso, 1953 >
The pair met at a bullfight in 1953, and remained friends until Picasso’s death two decades later. The work that brought Clergue early recognition in 1955, Les Saltimbanques, was an attempt to impress Picasso: a series of photos in which children strike world-weary poses in the costumes of travelling circus performers, it referenced the painter’s Harlequin and Pierrot motifs.
“My mother died when I was 18 and a half. The next year, though, I had a good fortune to meet Pablo Picasso at a bullring,” Clergue told L’Oeil de la Photographie. “Picasso signed one of my prints, not my best, but now it is the most expensive. When I reached the age of 20 I was still working in a factory, but I was taking photographs of five children dressed in clothes designed by me. I was trying to make Picasso happy: he had said at the bullring ‘I want to see more prints’.”
Clergue photographed other writers and artists in Picasso’s circle of friends, including the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau; the two collaborated on a volume of poetry and Cocteau’s 1959 film Le Testament d’Orphée. His images of Picasso reflect the level of intimacy they shared, and which he captured in his 1993 book Picasso My Friend, as well as in the 1970 film Picasso: War, Peace, Love.
“I had the opportunity to film Pablo Picasso in his home in Mougins … A few years later Picasso died and left me an artistic orphan,” he says. Informal and revealing, Clergue’s portraits show the artist posing next to works in his studio, with friends at a bullfight and reclining on the beach – often with a cigarette in hand. (…)