Burnt by the sun
Review by Corinna Lotz
The life of Camille Claudel, who was Auguste Rodin’s muse, is a compelling and ultimately a tragic one.
A number of contemporary critics and curators, including Octave Mirbeau, Gustave Geoffroy, Eugène Blot and Mathias Morhardt praised the only female sculptor who was eventually to find a place in the Musee d’Orsay. And, in 1894, the state commissioned a work, L’Age Mûr (Age of Maturity) from her.
Rodin himself stood in awe of her. She achieved no mean recognition in the competitive art world of fin-de-siècle Paris, thanks in no small part to unstinting support both direct and behind-the-scenes from Rodin. Together with her teacher and lover, she flew very high and near the sun – but tough as she was, something in her crumpled when she decided to leave Rodin in 1898. She became increasingly unable to cope with life and withdrew into herself. In 1913, her mother and brother saw fit to commit her to a mental asylum. There she remained, a lost soul, until her death 30 years later. The story of her prolonged imprisonment through the connivance of family and state bureaucracies remains shocking, not only because she was so talented, but also because many other mentally troubled people were in the same position.
The present show at the Rodin Museum in Paris until July 20 is the culmination of a prolonged and often uphill struggle to rescue Claudel from a half-century of oblivion. It was not until the 1980s that a number of biographies and an outstanding film made by Isabelle Adjani, and even Franz Ferdinand’s song, Outsiders, drew attention to her life. But even as recently as 1999 one book still described Claudel’s monumental Vertumnus and Pomona as by Rodin. Now, finally, she can step into the limelight as an artist in her own right.
Reine-Marie Paris, grand-daughter of the poet Paul Claudel – Camille’s brother – defied half a century of family taboos after she was handed a box of old papers that had belonged to Paul. She discovered letters from Camille to Paul, who though he had been extremely close to her, had allowed her to be sent to an asylum and languish there , even ignoring doctors’ suggestions that she return to her family. “Camille seemed cursed by the family, condemned to total oblivion by a pitiless censorship,” Reine-Marie explained to Le Figaro journalist Julia Baudin, in a special issue of the magazine celebrating the artist.
The three female curators of this new retrospective, first seen in Madrid, are anxious to free Claudel from the stereotype of being yet another artiste maudite, an artist notorious for her tragic destiny more than her art. Thanks to their efforts, 86 sculptures and drawings from the Rodin Museum, together with others from private and public collections in France, now offer a unique chance to see Claudel’s artistic evolution. The thoughtful arrangement within a confined space remains intimate, the many appreciative viewers and excellent audio-guides adding to the quality of the experience. The woman’s defiance in sculpture and through handwritten letters and vintage photographs entrances and disturbs, even today, when breaking artistic taboos is the norm rather than the exception. She was indeed a révolte de la nature (a revolt against nature) as Mirbeau wrote.
Early in her career, Claudel studied under Alfred Boucher, a local sculptor, who was amazed by her talent. She soon became a skilled portraitist with a delicate, classical sensibility close to the Florentine renaissance masters. Aged only 17, she made an outstanding head of her family’s old servant, La Vieille Hélène. Her last surviving work (between 1899 and 1905) shows a return to this style. But in 1884, and now living in Paris, Claudel became Rodin’s student as well as his model. Over the next two decades her artistic trajectory was extraordinary, as she rapidly adopted her second teacher’s artistic language or syntax, but soon became as much an influence on Rodin even as she learned from him.
Displayed alongside the early works are some extraordinary documents giving an insight into her wayward character. Claudel summed herself up in an Album of Confessions, dated 16 May 1888:
Your favourite virtue. I haven’t got any: they are all boring.
Your favourite quality in man. to obey his wife
Your favourite qualities in woman. to make her husband angry
Your favourite occupation. doing nothing...
She chose two murderers, Pranzini and Troppmann, as her “real life heroes”. Troppmann had been seized upon by many French novelists as a symbol of the oppressive years of the 2nd Empire.
But it is Claudel’s “favourite heroine in real life” who is the most revealing of her philosophy in life. She selected Louise Michel, also known as the Red Virgin of Montmartre, a French anarchist who took part in the Paris Commune of 1871. Michel spent 20 months in prison and was sentenced to deportation to New Caledonia, then part of French colonial empire in the Pacific. She took the side of the indigenous Kanaks in their 1878 revolt. Upon Michel’s release and return to Europe, she continued to preach revolution, often addressing mass rallies and conferences in Paris and London.
No wonder there was trouble to come in Camille’s own life!
She insisted on the right to study the human body from the living nude, usually denied to women artists at that time, on “moral grounds”. A newly attributed sketch of a woman’s back, plus bronze and plaster studies, show her growing ability to rival her master in making the human body – male and female – articulate unspoken emotions and ideas. Her Crouching Woman and Bent Man are simultaneously thoughtful and rugged, less idealised renderings than those of Rodin. When Rodin reassured her with the words, “don’t worry, you are a man”, he understood that Claudel not only had a tremendous physical energy but was fearless in going the distance in her uncompromising depiction of the human – from the innocence of youth to the decrepitude of old age.
The most poetic installation in the show is a group called The Waltz or Waltzing Couple. Displayed at shoulder height and very close to the viewer, these astonishing couples can best be described by the German word “innigkeit” – a poignant intimacy of feeling, often used to characterise music. They embody an almost unbearble romanticism reminscent of Chopin’s waltzes and mazurkas. The dance partners are overwhelmed by passion as they seem to float away. Claudine Mitchell writes in the exhibition catalogue that the dancers may be seen as a symbol of erotic love which Claudel could not express openly. But even though she hid sensitive zones with drapery to escape criticism, and did not allow their bodies and even hands to touch, the Beaux Arts establishment still refused to give her a commission.
The dancers marked the height of Claudel’s passion for Rodin. While he remained deeply in love with her, by 1892 she realised that he would not leave his long-standing partner Rose Beuret. Her rapture turned to despair. The plaster studies for the figure she called Clotho, one of the goddesses of fate who spun the threads of life on her distaff, are terrifying – the gaunt old goddess is not in control of fate but enmeshed and trapped by it. Age and youth are once again contrasted in her most ambitious work, L’Age Mûr (Age of Maturity) which depicts a man caught between two women, seen by many as symbolic of the love triangle from which Claudel now withdrew.
The turn of the century saw her experimenting with a new approach – “sketching from life”, as she called it. Brilliantly characterised individuals are grouped together, chatting or gossiping, their bodies stretching together as they hang on each others’ words. They are posed before a rising backdrop in the plaster sketches, softly modelled bodies full of movement. The idea is carried further in The Wave series. The power of nature, as a vast force threatening to engulf the cavorting nudes, takes the themes of The Waltz and Clotho still further, now with a rich contrast of colours and textures – smooth shining bronze set before marvellously olive green onyx veined with yellows and reds. The dynamism of The Wave is transformed into a resignation to fate. Her next series was of a single woman set within an interior space, called Deep Thought. The figure kneels or sits before a fireplace, peering into the embers (enhanced in one instance by an electric light), her body expressing a mingling of exhaustion and contemplation. The vertigo of the wave and dancing women has suddenly turned into a more passive, static and symmetrical style.
Sadly, these were amongst the last works to be created and to survive. While Claudel continued to receive commissions, including a purchase by the state, as well as seeing her work exhibited at the Eugène Blot gallery, she became increasingly reclusive and paranoid, destroying much of her own production. When her father, who had always protected her and provided for her financially, died in 1913, her mother and brother immediately had her committed to an asylum where she languished until her death in 1943. The first retrospective of her work was held at the Rodin Museum in 1951.