Portrait of an Artist

19 February 2009 by Diana Georgieva
Lucien Clergue can tell a thousand stories – and each and every single one of them seems to be golden. A photographer with over 60 years of practice, fanatic devoted to naked woman’s body and bull fights, monsieur Clergue is also a friend of some genius creators such as Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. He is used to answer a lot of questions mostly about don Pablo, to whom he devoted his book Picasso My Friend, photos of which can be seen also in the exhibition about Pablo is Sofia. This Friday Clergue will tell his stories in The Red House – and here you are some in advance.

Jean Cocteau called you the "poet with the camera", what do you think about such a definition?
Poetry is everywhere, it’s a way of life. A little stone on the road can be full of poetry, depending on the light and how do you feel while looking at it.

Your photos feature both naked female bodies and bloody bull fights. How do you manage to find the beauty in both?
If you look at some mediterranean frescoes, let’s say 28OO years old , between the horns of an animal, looking like a bull, you may see a naked woman. This means this duality is eternal. And beleive me, when a bull enters the ring, you will have 15 minutes to deal with it. With a woman you may have a little more time, but the danger is the same , she could kill you (as an image of course ) also in 15 minutes.

You’ve also photographed some pretty ugly things like dead animals, hundreds of them. Would you elaborate on that?
I was born in a city where death was highly celebrated. Arles is built on an enormous 2000 years old cemetary, then the monks moved the cemetery on the rocks of Montmajour. At the 19th century came the new passion about Jesus, with all this crosses and mercy. The river Rhône carries in Arles a cadaver of an animal as a gift from the old town. And also, when I started to shoot seriously, my mother had just passed away, and I kept asking the same question – why, why.

Most men consider they have never seen anything more beautiful than a woman’s naked body? Have you?
There is nothing more beautiful than an undressed woman, you can spend a lifetime trying to understand this perfection or unperfection. Remember Gelsomina in La Strada "A little stone on the road should be respected as a human being, the beauty you see is created by yourself.” When there was a protest agains my nude photos, the director of the school in Zürich, answered the students who insulted me like that: “Everything can look dirty, when seen through dirty eyes."

Please tell us more about your latest, Hieronymus Bosch-influenced project?
The Temptations of San Antony is recently my most important preoccupation. As Picasso used to say “A painting is stronger than me, it forces me to do whatever it wants". I can say it’s the same with me.

You met Picasso when you were only 18 and he was in his 70s. How did your friendship evolve? How did you gain his trust?
The only way to seduce Picasso was to work. When I was visiting him, his first question always was “How is your work doing?” And he loved me, because any time I visited him, he was able to see new things.”

Picasso is known as a wildly charismatic man. How would you describe his effect on the people around him, any particular occasion?
Picasso was a fascination. It was fabulous how, while opening a bottle of mineral water, he used to take the aluminium top and only between his two fingers, he turned it like making a mini sculpture into a dove, ready to fly. Everyone applauded him, it was amazing.

Would you share one of your brightest memories with Picasso?
Once in the garden in front of the Villa Notre Dame De Vie, he asked me "Tell me: do you make money?”. “Yes, don Pablo”, I answered. “Yes, yes, but do you make plenty of money?” he continued asking. “Not really, but enough to keep the family happy and be able to buy films and paper to print.” I said. “Then”, said Picasso, “one day we will make money together!” I was also very impressed of how tactful he used to be. While showing him my work, he never said if something is good or bad. One day his wife Jacqueline in the middle of a portfolio with nude girls said "I do not like this one". Then Picasso looked two more times at it and answered “If we had the right to say something at all, I may say that this is the photograph of Lucien I prefer less" He was so humble, so careful with the sensibility of an artist...

Could you compare Picasso to other great artists you knew - Cocteau and Dali for example?
It is impossible to compare Picasso with anyone else. Cocteau was essentially a writer, and Dali was very involved in his surrealism. Picasso was on the top of all: for Cocteau, Picasso was God. For Picasso, Cocteau was a poet among the others like him. Once in Paris during World War 2, Picasso and Miro put their money to buy a ticket and send Dali to New York. They did it because they didn’t want to have him hanging around them and in their legs anymore.

Do your photos of Picasso reflect his true personality?
My photos of Pablo Picasso reflect the truth, because I’m not a photo joirnalist. I was keeping memories from the privilege to share part of my life with him and I didn’t need him to be dressed as a clown to do that.

Which one is the portrait of Picasso that you like most and why?
The prortrait I prefer the most is the one with cigarette and a t-shirt. There you can see how strong is a man turning 75 (I will be there too in a few months). With eyes wide opened and full of visual appetite, strong enough, even though he was a small man.

How would you describe the influence of Picasso over you as a person and as an artist?
Through all my life I was trying to be as close as possible to him. He died 36 Years ago, and I still have the feeling I can talk to him as if he was alive here, it’s a major obsession I keep asking myself- what don Pablo would have done with this bull, this girl, this landscape?

Is it tiring to answer hundreds of questions about Picasso?
Yes, it is exhausting to answer all this questions, but I know this may help people to understand him better and see he was a normal person eating (but not drinking alcohol) like all of us. One day I showed up with new shoes. Picasso applauded and went to the next room. He came back with a pair of schoes in his hands "I made some money from copyrights of my works for postcards and I also bought new shoes!" Just like me, we were suddenly at the same level.

The conversation with Lucien Clergue Picasso My Friend is at the Red House, 20 February, 19:00, admission free


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