New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Lucien Clergue
R. Wayne Parsons
Lucien Clergue, “Nu Zebre”, 1997

If you want your nudes to look like zebras, Lucien Clergue is your man. I’m not kidding; little fluency in French is needed to understand the title of a characteristic image, “Nu Zébré” –- a seductively contorted female figure positioned in front of a partially closed Venetian blind (also visible in the background) such that her body is covered in stripes. Some may consider this artistic; my take is that it reduces nude photography to a mechanical, formulaic process that robs the art of any possibility of spontaneity, leaving us with little more than engineering or applied geometry.

The other trick in Clergue’s treatment of the nude is to pose his models on a beach with the body partially covered by an incoming wave (were the models anchored so as not to be washed out to sea?). Results differ mainly from beach resort advertisements in that Clergue dispenses with the bikini. If your taste runs to girlie magazines, perhaps you’ll like these.

Fortunately, nudes are not the whole of this exhibition (though unfortunately they are the majority). Things improve dramatically with photos from a large body of portraits of Pablo Picasso. Despite an age difference of 53 years, Clergue became a good friend of Picasso beginning in the early 1950s, and their relationship continued until Picasso’s death in 1973. Clergue photographed Picasso repeatedly over this twenty year period, and the results show much more intimacy between the photographer and subject than is usually the case. It’s an avuncular Picasso depicted here, a friendly man you would love to have a pastis with in a neighborhood bar. The best image of the lot shows Picasso and a few friends listening devotedly to the great flamenco guitar virtuoso Manitas de Plata; Picasso’s love of this music in revealed by the intensity of his gaze at the musician’s fingers on the strings of the guitar.

 by unidentified photographer.
Luciehn Clergue, “Dead Bull, Amphitheater, Arles, 1963”

I have saved the best for last. Both Clergue and Picasso were aficionados of the bullfight, and love of it was part of the basis of their friendship. Clergue photographed bullfights extensively, but bowing to American distaste for the sport, the curator has included only two photos from the series in this exhibition. That is a pity, for one must acknowledge the fight’s potential for spectacle, drama, and good photo ops even while deploring the activity itself. Clergue shows his love of the sport and fearlessness when he descends into the ring to get his shots. The best image in this exhibition is a close-up of the bull and matador eye-to-eye, motion stopped as the two confront each other and consider their next moves. The bull has the advantage of size, strength, and the instinctual fury that motivates him. The matador has superior intelligence and cunning, a deadly blade, plus the not insignificant fact that the bull has already been worked over and seriously weakened by the lances of the picadors by the time the fight commences. We don’t know how this particular contest ends other than to suppose it follows the usual course of an unfair game. I would respect the matador more if the fight were not rigged. But, nevertheless, the photograph is superb.

Lucien Clergue

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Thursday, April 29 to
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