There are 637 clichés about the French and some of them are true. Especially, it seems, the ones about l'amour and the ooh la la.
These prurient thoughts came to mind the other day during an interview with Lucien Clergue, the short, dapper French photographer famous for, among other things, his portraits of pals Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, his stature as the first photographer inducted into France's Académie des Beaux-Arts and his loving, lavish studies of the female form in all its pulchritudinous glory. Clergue, who turns a frail, cancer-stricken 80 in August, was making his first visit to Toronto, where his host, veteran gallerist Odon Wagner, is currently presenting a commercial exhibition, a first for Canada, of some 60-plus Clergue pictures as part of the CONTACT Photography Festival.
Clergue was born in Arles, the small, marshy, historic Mediterranean city in southeastern France, and it's there he's lived and worked most of his life, co-founding, in fact, its ground-breaking Rencontres internationales de la photographie in 1969. Arles is famous, too, as the locale where Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin shared their tiny, yellow house for nine weeks in the late 1880s, painting therein, smoking up a thick fug and just generally getting on each other's nerves. Sometimes, when the tensions grew too intense, the unlikely duo would go on what they termed "hygienic excursions" to the local brothels.
It's a milieu Clergue knew well.
The only child of a couple who divorced when he was 7, he began to make food deliveries from the grocery store his mother owned to neighbourhood brothels at 8. "It was," he confessed with a smile, "my first impression with not exactly nudity but of the femininity of women in their beauty and their charm." Ten years later, at 18, "I went to the prostitutes myself. It was like a celebration. I remember always climbing this little staircase … and closing the window in the boudoir, thinking van Gogh did the same thing, imagining him maybe looking out at the river and saying to himself: 'Maybe I should do a painting from here.'"
Van Gogh's "presence was all over Arles," Clergue said, "his shadow is in every corner." Working at a food processing plant at 17, he learned that the grandmother of his boss's secretary had been van Gogh's maid during the artist's 17-month stay in the town. "This lady," he remembered thinking, "has probably put in the garbage millions of dollars' worth of drawings rejected by van Gogh." Many years later, Clergue's wife Yolande established the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles.
It was in Arles, too, where Clergue's friendship with Picasso began. The co-founder of Cubism, living in nearby Vallauris, liked to attend the bullfights in Arles. Clergue liked the fights as well and while still in his mid-teens, had taken to photographing them for local newspapers. During one of Picasso's visits, in 1953, an 18-year-old Clergue accosted the artist, then 52, outside the arena and showed him some of his work. "I don't know what gave him the feeling that I had something," Clergue recalled, "but he said: 'I'd like to see more.'"
After a "courtship" of two years, the two became fast friends and remained so until the painter's death at 91 in 1973. It was Picasso who introduced Clergue to such eminences as Cocteau and Max Ernst, Picasso who designed the cover and poster for Clergue's first book, Picasso who agreed to be godfather to Clergue's second daughter in 1966, Picasso, too, who observed: "Clergue's photographs are from God's own sketchbooks." Two years later, Clergue helmed an acclaimed documentary on the artist, Pablo Picasso: War, Peace, Love, and 24 years after that immortalized their bond in a book of intimate images titled Picasso My Friend.
Another decisive moment in Clergue's development occurred just a few months after his initial encounter with Picasso: "I discovered a photo magazine called PhotoMonde." One issue was particularly impressive; its cover featured a 1935 nude photograph by Edward Weston of his then-mistress Charis Wilson ("The famous one where she takes her knee," Clergue explained, miming the raised position of the knee. "For me, the masterpiece of the century"), with more Weston nudes inside. Also inside: pictures by the transgressive French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin and misty, moody street scenes by the Franco-Hungarian lensman Brassai. "Really, you couldn't get any better than that," especially, Clergue recalled, the Westons. "I decided I will do the nude like him."
In the early years, Clergue's models were mostly friends who reportedly agreed to pose for him au naturel only if their faces would not be shown in the final print. This act of discretion, however, soon became a signature, with Clergue concentrating on the play of light, shadow, patterns, water on the female torso. Yet, for all their anonymity, and their celebration of shape and shadow, these photos – prints of which make up most of the Odon Wagner exhibition – carry an undeniable, unapologetic erotic charge. Not for Clergue the Kantian notion of the disinterested aesthetic response, that the truly beautiful should appeal to our senses in a cool and detached way; his breasts and buttocks are Platonic ideals made flesh.
Over the years, Clergue has admired a variety of photographers, mostly male, including Robert Mapplethorpe, Paul Strand, Irving Penn, Ansel Adams and Bill Brandt. He was close to Edward Steichen who, besides being an illustrious photographer, was curator of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art from 1947 to 1962. Perhaps even more than Picasso, it was Steichen who gave Clergue his biggest boost, buying 10 of his prints in 1959 for the museum's permanent collection; then, two years later, including 66 Clergues alongside pictures by Brandt and Japan's Yasuhiro Ishimoto in a MoMA show called Diogenes with a Camera.
"But to tell you the truth, for all that," Clergue said, "I've been influenced by music [he began violin lessons at age 7], painting and architecture [some of his first photos were shot in the Roman ruins of Arles], not so much by the photography."
Unsurprisingly, age and infirmity have restricted Clergue's creativity to the occasional photographic shoot, although last spring he did agree to serve a year as president of the Académie. "I try to do it in order to assume and to have the feeling I'm still existing. … But to say the truth, I know I've done what I have to do. You know, I've made more than 800,000 negatives and slides in my life? That's not so bad."
Is there anything he regrets not having accomplished?
"You mean, do I accept that I am happy with what I have done? Well, you're never happy; you're always thinking about the one I will do tomorrow. Now, of course, the question is: Am I able to do new work tomorrow?"
The answer is likely a firm maybe. In the meantime, there's more than enough old work to occupy our eyes.
Lucien Clergue: La Lumière Transcrite is at Odon Wagner Contemporary, Toronto, until May 31 as part of CONTACT 2014. Another retrospective exhibition, Homage: Lucien Clergue, is at New York's Throckmorton Fine Art through July 12.