The name Camille Claudel arouses great passion in France. Born in 1864 she was a creative force admired and ultimately feared, perhaps loathed, by those who knew her including the love of her life, Auguste Rodin, and members of her own family. This seems especially true of her famous brother, the poet and diplomat, Paul Claudel. She inspired admiration for her astonishingly beautiful sculptures and for the evolution of her visionary oeuvre. She was feared because of her volatile and explosive temperament though it may in part have been her fearsomeness that gave her the courage to become a sculptor at a time when the field was not just dominated by men but was their exclusive domain.
The Musée Rodin, located on the rue de Varenne in Paris, between the tomb of Napoleon and the residence of the Prime Minister, has extended an exhibition of Camille Claudel’s work through the fifth of January, 2014. Though the museum normally exhibits at least a few of her sculptures, currently, in recognition of the seventieth anniversary of her death, they are showing their full and impressive collection.
Having read about the exhibit on a recent visit to Paris, I immediately went to see the collection. It happened to be the exact date of her demise, October 20, and the museum presented a chilling one-hour performance based upon her letters, written and performed by Charles Gonzalès. Originally envisioned as an outdoor performance to be presented in the beautiful gardens of the museum, due to a light rain the performance was moved inside. The somber darkness of the theatre worked to great advantage as Gonzalès mesmerized the audience that filled every seat in the small theatre.
The tiny curtainless stage held only two objects, each ominously lit with piercing spotlights: a dark purple velvet dress, in the style of late19th-century Paris, and on the other side, a rope hanging from the ceiling. Gonzalès trudged slowly, taking miniature steps, toward the stage from an entrance in the back of the theatre. Dressed in layer upon layer of torn and shredded once-white linen bedclothes topped with a tattered black coat, he muttered unintelligibly as he took the stage.
The image he incarnated is a familiar one to those who know the story of Camille Claudel. A photo taken late in her life in Montdevergues, where she was exiled by her family to an insane asylum, shows her in similar dress, seated and wearing a hat. She stares forward into the camera with her hands folded in her lap. Her hands and wrists are wrapped in cloth bandages. The quotation that often accompanies this photo refers to her inescapable feeling that her life was going to end badly.
Gonzalès created his portrait by inhabiting mostly Claudel herself but occasionally also speaking in voices of others, such as Auguste Rodin when he wrote to his personal assistant, Ranier Maria Rilke, explaining that he would return from a trip to Italy and marry Mademoiselle Claudel. The impressionistic nature of the script and the conviction of Gonzalès as he speaks these weighted and historic words worked together to keep the audience on edge. Gonzalès’s ability to use minute physical transformations of his own body to indicate changes in persona and mood was a respectful, if often mournful, tribute to the great artists themselves. Without resorting to a clichéd impersonation of a mentally ill person speaking to herself he nonetheless captured the recognizable and universal cry for help seen on the streets of major contemporary cities. Crouched over and engaged in something akin to handwringing or twisting of clothing, Claudel spoke her letters which often began with her childhood address for her brother and mother: “Mon petit Paul” and “Ma petite maman.”
She repeatedly sent instructions to her family about the specifics of how she wished to be released from the hospital. She wanted them to send a second-class train ticket, rather than a first-class ticket, because the food in first class did not justify the greater expense. Tragically, these requests were never answered, though there is some evidence that doctors would have approved her released. Though Paul Claudel did occasionally visit his sister, he never intended to have her released, and in fact spoke quite disparagingly about her. In the Gonzalès script, Camille speaks with great affection to her younger brother somehow unaware that he feared her and her illness.
In one of her letters she refers to her “tightrope act.” As Gonzalès stretches the long rope hanging from the ceiling across the stage to illustrate the point, she vacillates back and forth between paranoia and lucidity.
La petite chatelaine
Camille Claudel was the first of three children born in the countryside away from Paris. The atmosphere in their expansive home veered between the delightful creative activities of the children, the indulgence of their father and the strict and maudlin oversight of their mother. Camille’s spectacular gifts were displayed early as she molded busts of other children, including her much-loved brother Paul, out of the clay she would scratch out of the ground with her bare hands. Her work drew the attention of Alfred Boucher who was to play a pivotal role in her development as an artist once the family relocated to Paris. It may have been his influence that led her parents to enroll her at the Académie Colarossi where she studied art and anatomy in a rare educational environment that admitted women. Around the age of eighteen she abandoned her formal education and set up a studio in Paris where she worked with fellow sculptors including Jessie Lipscomb from Britain.
During this period of her formation as an artist, she created numerous busts of mythological figures, French heroes and several busts of her brother, Paul. Of the works from this period, the only one extant today is “Bust of Paul Claudel at Age 13.”
Boucher acted as teacher and mentor to the young women until he was called to Italy to receive an award. In his absence, he asked a friend who had begun to receive wide recognition for his sculptures: Auguste Rodin. Rodin invited Claudel to become his student and they soon became lovers though Rodin was living with Rose Beuret and had a child with her soon after he began the liaison with the beautiful Claudel.
Portrait de Rodin
Referring to her in love letters as “my ferocious friend” and begging her not to abandon him, their affair would last over a decade and may or may not have resulted in children (this is the subject of great speculation and anxious denials from Claudel’s ancestors). The significance of the work that both artists created during their years together was and still is a fascinating and controversial subject. It was a period of enormous productivity for both of them and Claudel served as model and muse for many of Rodin’s great works of the period. The similarity between many of the works they created while together raises questions of who inspired whom and who created what. Soon after entering his studio as apprentice, Claudel submitted her own work and was accepted at the Salon of the Société des Artists Français (S.A.F.), the most important juried exhibition of its kind. Rodin’s career would forever ascend.
Camille and Jessie Lipscomb continued to be invited to the S.A.F. and Claudel’s work received praise as well as warnings from at least one critic that she must work in a style that is truly her own and no one else’s. This is clearly a reference to Rodin who was showing work during the period that betrayed a close collaboration with Claudel as a likely uncredited co-creator. There has even been speculation that Rodin may have signed some works that were actually the work of Claudel.
For example, during this time Rodin began to exhibit his series of works that portrayed the act of thinking in material form. These are possibly the best known French sculptures ever created. Claudel created her own series, similarly inspired by the faces of pensive models.
In 1887, Claudel showed several works at the S.A.F. including a portrait of her brother as a Young Roman. This work was purchased and preserved by the Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild. “La Jeune Fille à la Gerbe” was also shown at this time in terra cotta and is among the collection currently shown by the Rodin Museum.
Jeune fille à la gerbe
During the following year Jessie Lipscomb left France for England after marrying and Claudel leased another studio in Paris. Rodin installed himself in a nearby studio where together they worked on numerous sculptures that resembled each other. A common theme was a couple who reunites after a rupture. Claudel’s “Sakountala,” of a nude couple in an embrace, received honorable mention at the S.A.F. in 1888. After this period of growing fame, Rodin and Claudel began to travel together and for the next two years she rarely exhibited. There has been speculation that during this time she may have been focused on Rodin’s work or may have been bearing his children. There is no definitive evidence that she had children with Rodin or whether she may have had an abortion. However, though Rodin wrote passionate letters to Claudel and spent what must have been most of his time with her, he remained tied to Rose Beuret and this was an incontestable source of turmoil for Claudel. According to Jessie Lipscomb, who often acted as go-between, their relationship was highly passionate and fraught with frequent and dramatic separations.
Exactly when Claudel began to show signs of mental instability is not known. There is speculation that the stress of being a female sculpture in a male dominated field while at the same time enduring the vicissitudes of her relationship with Rodin may have contributed to her deteriorating mental state. Though always considered a strong-willed and eccentric woman, her behavior indicated greater and greater paranoia that eventually led her to become a recluse in a studio on the waterfront of Île Saint-Louis, at 19 quai du Bourbon.
During the early 1890s, when her work enjoyed greater and greater exposure and critical mention, she appears to have made an overt effort to distance her style from Rodin’s. Working in a more naturalistic style, she exhibited such masterpieces as “La Valse” which typifies her ability to bring motion to life in solid form. The critic Octave Mirabeau referred to her during this time as a genius.
Camille’s brother, Paul, was by now becoming an influential diplomat with postings in New York and Boston as vice-consul and ultimately consul. He and Rodin both worked behind the scenes, or so it is believed, to promote her work and bring her the commissions that they believed she deserved. Famously, Rodin even set-up a meeting for her with the President of the Republic of France. She declined the meeting with the President claiming that she had no time and nothing to wear. Then, at some point, both men are believed to have abandoned their efforts to support her. Or worse.
In spite of her increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior, by the turn of the 20 century she had begun to receive a few commissions and even placed a few works in museums. In 1900, Paris hosted the World Exhibition where an enormously fruitful exchange of artistic ideas took place, most notably the explosion of Japanese influence in French Impressionist painting and also Claudel’s work known as Japonisme. Her emotionally powerful and technically profound work entitled “La Vague” reflects the influence of Japanese workcuts on her vision. This work is also currently being shown in Paris.
L'Âge mûr, deuxième version
Definitively finished with Rodin, she created a series of work that depicted a hideous love triangle. Rodin may have intervened at this time to stop the work (alternatively entitled “L’Âge mûr,” “La Destinée,” “Le Chemin de la Vie,” or “La Fatalité”) from being shown or officially commissioned. Though she had the support of some critics and even a gallery that would represent her, her life had begun to tumble into chaos. There have been reports, though disputed, that while living in greater and greater states of isolation, she may have destroyed many of her own works.
Certain facts are indisputable. In 1913, one week after the death of her father, a well-placed provincial government official, she was condemned to live in an asylum near Avignon. She died alone on October 20, 1943. She was buried in a grave marked with only the date of her demise and a number: 1943, numéro 392. Later her remains were exhumed and dumped into a mass grave.
Years after the death of his sister, Paul Claudel, a devout Catholic and esteemed member of the Académie Française, gave a radio interview that lasted over forty hours and was eventually published in a book of over 350 pages. After spending hours describing his own successes and virtues he referred to Camille’s life as an abject failure. Upon his death her brother received a state funeral such as those accorded great leaders and he was buried with great ceremony in the family tomb.
Hôtel Biron (Musée Rodin Paris)
Toward the end of his performance as Camille Claudel, Charles Gonzalès quotes from a letter she wrote to her brother describing a rare visit she received from her nephews. In translation: “There I was, their aged aunt, disheveled and all alone, wearing an old coat and an oversized hat that fell to my nose. This is the way I will be remembered in the century to come.”
It would be forty years before Camille Claudel began to be recognized for her artistic achievements and her tragic neglect began to be rectified. In another complicated plot twist, the granddaughter of Paul Claudel, Reine-Marie Paris, wrote a book that became the basis for an internationally renowned film whose recognition included César awards and Academy Award nominations. Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 film “Camille Claudel,” co-produced by the actress who played Claudel, the beautiful Isabel Adjani and co-starring Gerard Depardieu as Rodin, is a must-see. Also worth investigating are a play and novel by Anne Delbée entitled “Une Femme” and “Camille et Paul” by Dominique Bona.
Among the many unanswerable questions about the life and legacy of Camille Claudel are questions about the nature of her mental illness. Hospitals such as the one in which she was imprisoned could do little to help patients such as she during that era. Today, perhaps her fate would be different. Regardless, her work is unquestionably worth seeing and her life is worthy of contemplation.
Photos - Christian Baraja, and Courtesy
Musée Rodin Paris, Agence Observatoire