Portraits of the artist as an old man

Andre Villers' photographs of Picasso in the south of France offer an extraordinary glimpse of the artist's domestic life. By Louise Jury
ANDRE VILLERS has photographed some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The painters Dali and Chagall and writers including Jacques Prevert have been all immortalised by his lens.

But it is the intimate photographs of his favourite subject, Pablo Picasso, which are always in demand.

"People always ask me for the pictures of Picasso," he says. "Picasso was marvellous. You'll think I'm saying this because I was close to him, but he was extraordinary."

Some of Villers' favourite images of Picasso are currently on display at the Royal Academy in London, accompanying the exhibition Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay.

Normally housed in a museum in Mougins in the south of France, visitors are afforded an insight into Picasso's domestic life as well as his work. One can see the artist attending his beloved bull-fighting at Frejus and at home, cutting paper figures for his two young children, Paloma, today a successful international designer, and Claude, who now controls his father's estate, by his artist lover Francoise Gilot.

But the 25 prints in London have been chosen to illustrate the main exhibition. They were all taken between 1953 and 1959 when Picasso had plunged himself into working in clay for the first time. In the small town of Vallauris near Cannes, he took ordinary vases and plates produced by the Madoura pottery and transformed thousands of them, twisting some into birds and zoomorphic shapes and painting others.

In the pictures, Villers shows Picasso standing in front of shelves of ceramics, many of which look identical to the exhibits at the RA. There are images of him at work in the attic room at Madoura while others show Suzanne Ramie, who ran Madoura with her husband Georges, visiting Picasso at La Californie, the home he shared with Francoise, in Cannes. Yet when the two men met, Villers had no idea who Picasso was.

Villers, now 68 years old, was invalided to a sanatorium in Vallauris when the deprivations of the Second World War left him with a severe calcium deficiency. It affected his bones so badly that he spent five years flat on his back. As he began to learn how to walk and live again, he started photography lessons, and gradually expanded his subject matter from the sick to the surrounding countryside.

"One day when I was out, by chance I met Picasso," he recalls. "I didn't know anything about his paintings. I still don't know what attracted me to speak to him."

Villers raised his camera seeking permission to take a shot of the artist - and Picasso refused. After some pleading, he eventually agreed to just one frame.

Afterwards, Picasso asked to see the box of pictures Villers was carrying under his arm "just in case someone asked to see them". After Picasso had spent some time perusing the novice photographer's work he said: "Having seen what you do, do you want to see what I do?" He went on to add: "Don't worry. People take me for a mad man, but all I want to do is tell the truth."

After this initial meeting the two quickly became good friends. Picasso took Villers to his studio, showed him his paintings and sculptures and, in so doing, invited him into his life. This friendship even led to a collaboration on Diurnes, a book of photographs to accompany a text by Prevert.

Unsurprisingly, Villers is a committed Picasso fan. The stories of the artist's unpleasantness to those close to him - particularly the women in his life - are legion. He adored playing the tyrant. Yet Villers will not permit criticism: "All these things about him being a cruel sadist are not true."

He concedes that Picasso was more than aware of his greatness, and thus could be arrogant. At La Californie, the family goat would wander through the house eating Picasso's drawings that lay scattered on the floor. Ever mindful of his own worth, when the goat then returned the work as excrement, Villers remembers the painter pointing and saying: "Americans should buy this."

But he could also be kind. When Villers' first Rolliflex camera stopped working, Picasso bought him another and gave it to him with the words: "How can you live without one? It's your eyes."

Andre Villers speaks fondly of the days when Picasso, though famous, could still walk unhindered in the streets of Vallauris before his reputation made it impossible for him to do so. And the photographer has every reason to be grateful for their chance encounter. For Picasso, though characteristically arrogant, was right when he joked to Villers: "C'est moi qui t'ai mis au monde" - "I made you."

Picasso in the South of France: Photographs of Andre Villers runs at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London until 1 December