Erotic depictions of women in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography from the dawn of man to the present.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Aquatic Venus 2: Née de la Vague by Lucien Clergue (1934-2014)

On our post on The Mirror of Venus back in December someone suggested a post on the book Née de la Vague (Born of the Wave) by French photographer Lucien Clergue, who died last month at the age of 80.  Coincidentally, Triple P was watching an episode of one of his favourite TV programmes, Great Contenental Railway Journeys,  a few days after this comment was left and presenter Michael Portillo visited Arles and actually interviewed an obviously ailing Clergue in his final months.  This was too much of a coincidence to ignore so in this post we will look at  pictures from Clergue's 1968 book Née de la Vague.

The book has  nearly 100 pages and is made up of photographs of female nudes photographed on the coast of the Camargue in the South of France.  There is no text at all.  It opens with a series of pictures of waves crashing on the shore with no figures in sight.

The first figure is almost invisible behind the flying sea foam; literally emerging from the water and the page as a shadowy shape.  Shape is absolutely what this book and, indeed Clergue's photography of women generally, is about.

These really are, appropriately for this blog, Venuses emerging from the waves.  The faces of his models are never visible; their bodies become abstract shapes.

Now, not photographing their faces makes his studies completely about bodies  and is really the ultimate objectification of the female body.  His figures become sculptural forms and the black and white photography, which removes any skin colour, means that they merge with their backgrounds; both emerging from and becoming part of their watery element like Ancient Greek water nymphs.

While the lack of faces works to make the bodies splendidly abstracted forms Clergue admitted that he partly didn't how the girls' faces because they were mostly friends of his and they wanted to remain anonymous.

Although the book was published in 1968, many of the pictures were taken four years earlier than that, when the attitudes to nudity, even in France, were very different.

These are some of several shots in the book of a girl with unshaven armpits. Some giels, if you look carefully, have unshaven legs too.  It is difficult to know how many different models Clergue employed for the photographs in the book.  Probably today they would have been named but again, these girls were likely amateurs not professionals.

Although there are some particularly outstanding busts on display Clergue doesn't ignore the contours of his models' bottoms either.  His models are all remarkably curvy; their ripe forms emphasised by the way the sunlight strikes their wet bodies.

Clergue was born in Arles in 1934 and after his parents divorced worked at his mother's grocery shop where one of his jobs was making deliveries, including to the local brothels.  It was these visits, he later said, that opened his eyes to the allure of women.

Clergue was a keen violinist but he couldn't afford to continue his studies and took up photography instead.  As a nineteen year old he was taking pictures at a local bullfight when he ran into Pablo Picasso, who lived nearby.  Picasso saw something in his work and asked to see more, encouraging Clegue to devote the next year and a half to his photography so as to be able to present a strong portfolio to the artist.

Clergue remained friends with Picasso for twenty years until the artist's death in 1973.  Picasso also introduced him to Max Ernst and Jean Cocteau.  His early work featured the characters who inhabited that part of Provence, bullfighters, acrobats and gypsies.  His portraits of gypsy flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata helped contribute to his fame in the sixties.

Clergue consciously modelled the approach to his nudes on that of Edward Weston but developed his own distinctive, easily recognisable style.  He carried on photographing nudes on the beach in the Camargue until the end of his life.

Some way through the book, in keeping with its theme of emerging from the waves ,Clergue presents the first photographs of his models' pubic hair.  Initially no more than an enticing texture, barely showing through the bubbles of foaming water, gradually this still, at the time, very forbidden area makes its appearance.

After their brief time on shore it is as if, like mermaids, the women must return to their element.  Having fully revealed their bodies to us they must disappear once more until they emerge to be re-born again in the future.  We anticipate their return with relish.

At the end of the book the bodies, mirroring the opening gradually, disappear in a show of light, shade and texture.  The final shot of a woman is just her shadow, a memory of a corporeal presence to be replaced by just the waves on the sand.

More aquatic Venuses by Clergue another time. 


  1. I've always liked Clergue's work; didn't know about this book. Thanks.

  2. Thanks very much for this very entertaining and informative post. As I said in my original comment it as much the atmosphere of the time of day he captured as well as the beauty of the bodies of his models that impressed me at the time. Still does.You mention Edward Weston and here in England Bill Brandt also took a series of pictures of nudes on the beach although his emphasizethe more abstract nature of the bodies, contrasting them with rocks and pebbles rather than the sensual aspects of nude bodies and water. The sixties and seventies were a good time for "arty nudes", Sam Haskins, almost forgotten now was famous then although his pictures had a more swinging dolly bird vibe. Perhaps another feature?

    1. Yes, my sister used to live in Seaford close to where Brandt took a lot of his shots at Birling Gap.

      I'd completely forgotten about Sam Haskins. He did quite a few calendar shoots in the seventies which were often featured in Amateur Photographer.

  3. Wow! These are fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing :)