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Peter Beard (1938-2020) by Anne Clergue



Peter Beard and the Clergues by Anne Clergue

It all started with Jérôme Hill, (1905-1972) Peter Beard’s uncle who had a house in Cassis, la Batterie. His grandfather had created a railroad company in the United States, the Great Northern Railway and the First National Bank in St Paul. Freedom was in order, he became a painter, director, photographer, composer. Passionate about art, he inherited his grandfather’s exceptional collection, which included Corot, Daubigny, Delacroix, Puvis de Chavannes and members of the Barbizon school. He himself became a great collector, he created the Jerome Foundation in the United States which supports emerging artists and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis which welcomes artists, researchers, thinkers in residence.

A great admirer of Edward Weston, he acquired photos of the one who was his photography teacher. Yolande and Lucien Clergue often visited Jérôme Hill in Cassis. After numerous discussions, Lucien informed him of his photographic collection project for the Réattu Museum with Jean-Maurice Rouquette. He hoped that the collector would offer a print. He came to Arles to know the museum and donated 48 vintages of Edward Weston to the Musée Réattu, spread out over time, in 1965, 1970, 1974. A real treasure which gave an international dimension to this collection created in 1965.

Peter Beard adored his uncle and often visited him in Cassis. It was quite natural that he came to Arles to meet the friends of his uncle, the Clergue family. He had the passion of his 20 years which never left him. He wanted to jump into the arena during a bullfight and kill a bull but the former bullfighter Pataroni openned his shirt and showed him the terrible scars caused by the bulls. Peter changed his mind for a moment but  still tried his luck with the bulls from Camargue. He adored Arles and stayed at the Arlatan hotel which at the time was called the Touring Club Hotel.

My father invited him to exhibit at the Rencontres in 1984. We were going for a walk in the footsteps of Van Gogh. Peter climbed the steep slopes of Montmajour Abbey, the crumbling stone walls that crumbled under his feet, stepped over the barbed wires. He braved all the required authorizations and entered wherever he wanted, especially in places where access was prohibited. He was not afraid of anything, had a crazy charm and seduced all women. His fiancee at the time had just broken off her marriage to be with him. I found it hard to follow his OG as he said in English his “orange gin” in the morning, at Le Tambourin cafe in the Place du Forum which was his HQ.

It was a bohemian life where everything was simple, nothing mattered, it was a time of carelessness. I remember his mundane shopping basket made of straw from which bundles of 500 franc banknotes flew away, it didn’t matter to him. The only thing that interested him was the long discussions about the artists, Van Gogh, Bacon, Picasso and the others. He was smoking marijuana and said to me, “Take a puff and look at this postcard, you’re going to see some amazing things”. I was shy, I didn’t understand everything he said to me and I didn’t dare say no. He took my sister Olivia to lunch at Baumanière, climbed the stone quarries of Les Baux de Provence.

Yolande, my mother had just created the Association for the Creation of the van Gogh-Arles Foundation, in 1983. She asked contemporary artists to create a work in homage to Van Gogh, giving birth, 100 years after his disappearance to this house of artists that was so important to him. During passionate discussions with Peter Beard, the latter suggested that he ask Francis Bacon to make a tribute to Van Gogh, he who painted several paintings of Van Gogh walking on the road to Tarascon, on their way to Montmajour. He then advised her to send a simple postcard of Arles in black and white, explaining her point. The response was immediate and Bacon promised to get to work as soon as possible. Their numerous exchanges will lead to the realization of his homage to Van Gogh which was exhibited for the first time during the inaugural exhibition of the nascent institution in 1988.

Francis Bacon and Peter Beard knew each other well. Bacon had been touched by the photos of Peter of the rotting elephants from “The End of the Game”. Fascinated by his photos of animals Francis Bacon explained that for him “the strongest are those of decomposing elephants, their carcasses  gradually transformed into grandiose sculptures, which beyond simple abstract forms bear the imprint of the vanity and tragedy of life.

When they meet in the early 1970s, Peter became a model for Bacon. He produced four triptychs and nine portraits of Peter Beard, they were very close. The context is perfect, “good timing”. Bacon was attentive to Peter Beard, he had his ear. He knew that Yolande Clergue’s request would stir Bacon’s interest in producing a work in tribute to the one he admired above all.

In 1988, I left Arles for New York where the great gallery owner Leo Castelli welcomed me in his gallery in Soho. This is where I met pop-art artists. We met regularly with Peter at the Jezabel restaurant with my sister Olivia who created a boxed work that represented the world of the photographer in the jungle.

Subsequently, Peter made numerous stays in Arles at the North Pinus. As soon as he arrived, his room was immediately transformed into an artist’s studio: photos, collages, fake blood for making up his notebooks, the famous UHU glue, a thousand incongruous objects littered the floor and occupied all the space . He also wanted to participate in the wonderful adventure of the Van Gogh Foundation and created a work in tribute to the Dutch painter.

One summer day, we went to the beach with a few friends and Peter asked us to select objects for the work he was going to do. He would stick shells, algae, driftwood, ropes, plastic bottles, dead fish, all kinds of garbage collected on the beach on the huge black and white photo which represented him, face down, arms spread out.

The day we had to bring the “work” to the Van Gogh Foundation, we had to find a very wide roll of several meters in order to transport the image which had grown very heavy with all the objects that made it. We crossed the Place du Forum, greeted by the people of Arles, like a caravan returning from a long journey with its trophy!

Here are in a few words my memories of Peter Beard with the Clergue family. Everyone remembers Peter in Arles, this irresistible being, full of talent and free as a bird.

Anne Clergue, Arles, April 19, 2020.


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