Lucien Clergue – Réunion des Musées Nationaux - Grand Palais

Stephanie van den Hende
Nov 13, 2015 3:35PM

This exhibition is produced by the Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais, in collaboration with the Atelier Lucien Clergue.

Lucien Clergue (1934 – 2014) was not yet twenty when Pablo Picasso decided to mentor him after Clergue showed him his first photos as they were leaving a bull fight in Arles (1953). He offered to design the covers of several of his upcoming publications and introduced him to Jean Cocteau, who generously helped him structure the discourse of his work.

Thanks to the discovery of several albums, the existence of which was unknown until the death of the photographer, we have been able to capture the piercing intensity and poetic macabre that was so distinctive to Lucien Clergue and so seductive to these two great artists. They included seven albums of dressmakers’ textile collections discovered by Clergue, who replaced the fabric samples with contact photographs representing the most radical themes of his early work: rotting carcasses, ruins, children dressed as gypsy acrobats and, soon after, bullfighting and his early nudes. Everything came from the soul with this young adult who, as a child during the bombings of the Second World War, had to care for his mother – a shopkeeper in Arles – before she disappeared when he was still young.

Famed for his photographs of female nudes during the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, it is a different kind of poetics which remains the core of Clergue’s work. This exhibition chronicles this in an original way, offering a reduced, reorganized reading of his work within a new hierarchy. For example, his magnificent photographs of gypsies from Arles and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer are of a scope that the artist refused to acknowledge during his lifetime, not wanting to be taken for a reporter at a time when photography was highly divisive. He preferred to be recognized for his discovery of Manitas de Plata, whom he accompanied around the world.

This rapid arrangement of work culminated in a thesis, which he presented, using only photographs, to Roland Barthes, who recognized his emerging talent. This was the peak of Clergue’s research work. He then channeled a great deal of his energy into promoting the work of others, establishing the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie – which quickly became the worldwide meeting point for this flourishing art form – as well as managing his own career.

Soon after, his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1961), but Lucien Clergue’s highest accolade came when he was the first photographer to be made a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 2006. His success comes in part from his qualities as a storyteller. His voice was recorded for an exhibition to celebrate his 80th birthday at the Rencontres d’Arles, so that visitors could listen to him, as well as watch television clips which demonstrated his early conviction in the future of photography.

The visitors will be able to immerse themselves in the best photographs from this productive period, grouped together by theme, thanks to the circuit the two curators have designed which applies staging that will give energy to the visit and return this world-famous photographer to his rightful place.


Curators and exhibition designers: François Hébel and Christian Lacroix.
Project management: Véronique Dollfus.

Stephanie van den Hende