Camille Claudel Revisited

Why would the Musée Rodin have another Camille Claudel show just seven years after they hosted her retrospective? Consider what followed on the heels of that exhibition – biographies, TV programs, traveling shows of Claudel’s work in the U.S., Japan and Germany, a 1988 film by Bruno Nuytten (now on videocassette), even a book of poetry written in Claudel’s voice and reprinted five times by Louisiana State University Press. Add to that the countless articles in which the Claudel/Rodin dispute has been tossed about by critics and scholars of nearly every persuasion.

Yes, she was a martyr who sacrificed her talent for her lover. No, she was a madwoman who didn’t have the intellectual rigor or discipline to carry on. Yes, she was a world class sculptor who threatened greater innovation than Rodin. No: she was good, not great, and at times awful. Yes, she had two children by Rodin. No, Rodin only has one child, and that was with somebody else. Yes, Claudel influenced Rodin. Wrong again. Rodin did all the influencing, she just soaked up his genius like a sponge.

According to curators, the new Claudel show at the Musée Rodin is meant to clear the air a bit after all the dust has settled. Certainly Claudel’s public has grown exponentially over the last few years, her tragedy ripe for a feminist recuperation. She’s no longer simply a sculptor for aesthetes, she’s a full-scale media phenomenon. All the attention has brought at least 17 pieces, believed to have been lost or destroyed, to light. And no matter where you land on the Claudel/Rodin who-dun-it scale, the exhibition leaves no doubt that Claudel was a sculptor of significant talent who name graces several chef d’oeuvres.

Ironically, her achievement has only served to fuel speculation – what could she have gone on to accomplish if she had had the opportunity? If, that is, she hadn’t succumbed to a mental illness in which a real or imagined rejection and betrayal by Rodin led to a paranoid state in which Claudel imagined herself the victim of a conspiracy. She was hospitalized by her family. They never came to visit her. Even more cruelly, she had no possibility of making sculpture after her institutionalization.

Let’s back-burner the bio a moment and look at the artifacts. Among the 99 works on display in a temporary exhibition hall at the Musée Rodin, Torso of a Woman Squatting is a transcendent piece which goes beyond the figurative into abstraction, a direction which Rodin himself did not dare to broach. While perhaps inspired by his own Crouching Woman, Claudel’s foot-high bronze torso, shorn of head, arms, and legs, goes further than Rodin’s: the cropping of limbs is not simply a reduction of excess meant to galvanize the essential. As other critics have pointed out, in Claudel’s Torso of a Woman Squatting, the body is moving toward being an object-toward, that is, abstraction. The cumulative effect of the torque in the twisting waistline, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t left leg, and the play between angular and rounded forms has more to do with Brancusi than it does with mainline Rodin.

Although Torso of a Woman Squatting indicates, perhaps, a language which might have emerged in Claudel’s work, her reputation is based on her ace portraiture, such as Young Woman with Closed Eyes, in which interior and exterior states fuse. The realism of the portrait, its stunning immediacy – the head turning to the side just for a moment to pause, to daydream, to think – communicates a vulnerable psychological state. In Young Woman with Closed Eyes, the in¬tangible world of reverie is made tangible, the material endowed with emotional depth. We think that at any moment the woman will return from her dreams to wakeful consciousness. In this portrait, Claudel has gone beyond the presence of personality into the absence of a wandering mind. Others of her portraits are equally remarkable – The Gypsy with his centuries-old pride, the ‘monumental’ Rodin portrait with his beard transformed into a craggy outcropping, and the Head of An Old Woman, its unrefined globular surface a résumé of an aging body struggling against itself, against gravity.

While Rodin’s sculptures are remarkable for the liquid light seemingly radiating from the surface, Claudel’s use of light is quieter, less effervescent. Her surfaces are more studious perhaps, more careful and refined. Sometimes this leads into a kind of empty classicism, as it does in the 1903 version of Persée et la Gorgone in which preciousness becomes objectionable. She is at her best when she is less labored and more expressive, as in the elaborate L’Age Mûr at one extreme, or the spontaneous Cat at the other. Her modeling of hands was so successful that Rodin entrusted the hands of his sculptures to Claudel, who worked on such astonishing pieces as The Gates of Hell.

Rodin and Claudel were for a time on the same wavelength – he was much older and in his artistic maturity; she was in the awkward phase between apprenticeship and power. And although several of Claudel’s pieces have Rodin precedents, it’s too easy to say that the relationship was one-sided and veto the possibility of exchange as, for example, critic Eric Gibson has. No matter what power politics are involved, no two people work closely together without at least some degree of mutual influence. And yet I certainly won’t go so far as to say that Claudel was the genius behind Rodin’s work, as others, such as Reine-Maire Paris, have intimated. Certainly in terms of overall achievement, Rodin’s work has overshadowed that of Claudel’s, a fact which no amount of recuperation can remedy. Rodin’s artistic power is unquestioned. And even in this exhibition, he still gets the last word. The Camille Claudel catalogue comes in a sack with Auguste Rodin’s name printed on the outside.

Camille Claudel, at the Musée Rodin, 77, rue de Varenne, 7e. Mº Varenne. 10 am-6 pm every day except Monday. Tel: 47.05. 01.34.

Leave a Reply