“Clergue’s photographs are from God’s own sketchbooks,” Pablo Picasso once said of the French photographer, who will turn 80 in August. Lucien Clergue co-founded the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in 1970 – it is now celebrating its 44th year – and has produced a body of work over nearly 60 years that was acknowledged with a Legion d’Honneur in 2003. Yet he is perhaps best known for his relationship with the Spanish artist.
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.