Summary of Camille Claudel
Talented from youth, inspired by nature, and captivated by love, Camille Claudel unlocked the emotive power of sculpture after centuries of its subtleties having been obliterated by excessive polishing and focus on technique. Drawn intuitively to the innocence of children, the experience of old age, and the complexities of love and madness, Claudel exhibited great skill in the portrayal of raw and real emotions. Whilst sculpture until this point had typically dealt in hard and impenetrable subject matter akin to its materials, Claudel managed to peer beyond the surface and add transformative elusiveness to formulaic solidity.
Sadly, following the end of her long-standing affair with fellow sculptor, Auguste Rodin, Claudel's own underlying delicacy unravelled and she experienced a psychological breakdown. As unsupported personally as she had been professionally, her own family placed her in an asylum. This action was the equivalent of caging a bird, and as Claudel could not fly in captivity, she instead became the living embodiment of her pain, a symbol of the destruction of love, existing only in her own despair. Although the woman herself died in relative obscurity, interest in her art grew organically and there is now a National Museum in France dedicated to Claudel's life's work.
- Every work by Claudel is infused with an intensity of expression, psychological investment, and sense of truth that is arguably lacking in the work of her male contemporaries. The likes of Alfred Boucher and Auguste Rodin had tendencies to overlay emotional reality and lived experience with projections of fantasy and a finishing sheen of beauty, and as such they neglected to explore 'meaning', or to move away from outdated neo-classical and imperial styles. It was Claudel who was keen to experiment - influenced by Art Nouveau and Japanese prints - her sculpture became 'expressionist'.
- Claudel's sculptures reveal an interest in relationships, and in particular the dynamism created by the gathering of small groups (including couples). Whilst the portrait busts that she made typically exude a sense of calm, her groupings emit abundant energy. Like others at this time (most notably Sigmund Freud) Claudel attempted to understand moods and behaviours that were triggered by human interaction. Like Edvard Munch, she worked repeatedly on the same subjects illustrating a tendency towards obsession.
- Claudel experienced ongoing torment in both her personal and professional life - due to being at best sidelined and at worst completely betrayed - and this writhing agitation was often made visible in her work. Professionally, her career was a constant struggle, from being one of the first women to formally study when such was still frowned upon, to later finding it difficult to gain financial support to help cast vulnerable plaster models into lasting bronze. Personally, she felt betrayed by Rodin who aided her emotional damage to such a degree that once institutionalized, she would no longer make art in fear that he would steal her ideas.
Biography of Camille Claudel
Camille Claudel was born in 1864 in Fère-en-Tardenois, Aisne, France. Her father made a living from mortgage dealings and bank transactions, and her mother came from a long line of wealthy Catholic farmers. The family moved from place to place, one of which was Villeneuve-sur-Fère, which made a deep impression on Claudel and the family would continue to spend summers there even after moving on. In 1927, Claudel wrote of Villeneuve to her younger brother, the poet Paul Claudel, "What joy if I could find myself at Villeneuve again! This beautiful Villeneuve unlike anything on earth!". It seems that the children enjoyed the landscape and atmosphere of this countryside home in particular, and may have contributed to Claudel's particular love of nature, and literally for the earth. When the family moved to live for three years at Nogent-sur-Seine - at which time Claudel was 12 - she was already working with clay. Her early work attracted the attention of the already successful sculptor Alfred Boucher, who advised her father to encourage his daughter's artistic career. In response to such advice, in 1882, along with her mother, Paul and her younger sister, Louise, Camille Claudel moved to the Montparnasse neighbourhood of Paris while her father continued to work elsewhere and supported the family from afar.
Important Art by Camille Claudel
Although also smooth-lined and romantic, this sculpture differs radically to those of her male contemporaries. Similar in composition to Rodin's Eternal Idol (1889), whilst in his sculpture we are confronted by highly polished sex and desire, here Claudel depicts love as a power of the mind, as well as an attraction between bodies. The lovers are connected as equals as they gracefully unite their heads. The title and subject of the piece originally comes from the legendary Indian tale by the poet Kalidasa, in which Sakuntula is reunited with her husband following a long magic spell. First modelled in 1886, Claudel repeatedly fought for a state commission for a marble version but was constantly refused. It was only in 1905, when the Countess of Maigret was still Claudel's financial sponsor that a version was finally carved in marble. At this point the sculpture was renamed Vertumnus and Pomona after the Roman God of metamorphosis who initially disguised himself as an old woman to gain the trust of the goddess of fruit. Indeed the sculpture is also sometimes known as The Abandon, and with these three different titles, moves from Hindu to Greek mythology, to personal experience.
Originally read as a surrender to love, the renaming in 1905 to introduce an aspect of disguise points towards Claudel's distrust of Rodin after their separation and complicates the meaning. According to the art historian, Angelo Caranfa, the piece expresses Claudel's worry that she can never detach herself entirely from Rodin. A letter written to Gustave Geffroy in 1905 indicates that the work had a particular personal and artistic significance for Claudel, "(...) I am still coughing and sneezing as I polish with rage the group destroying my tranqulity: with tear-filled eyes and convulsive groans I finish the hair of Vertumnus and Pomona. Let's hope that despite different accidents, they shall be finished in a logical way, suiting two perfect lovers." The sculpture is Claudel's hopeful recounting of tender, real, and vulnerable love. It is not an idealised symbol of love as Rodin's The Kiss has come to represent, but instead reveals love, even if in time lost, that was actually experienced by two people, not an untouchable vision, but a momentary actual joy felt in the course of everyday life.
Immortalised in bronze, a beautiful couple dance together in passionate, sensual, and harmonious embrace. They are each attentive to the other's body and spirit in the space; they are in love. As the duo lean significantly to one side the notion of the precarious in relationships is introduced, and the idea that what is quickly built can also easily fall comes to mind. The overall energy, however, is intensely joyous and romantic.
Most notable and unusual for the composition is the fact that whilst the male figure remains whole, his body fully formed from head to toe, the woman at the point of her buttocks becomes swirling cloth. Read in a positive light, the woman's transformation shows affinity with the environment and a great sensitivity to all that surrounds her. Construed negatively however, we see a warning sign that the female sense of self can be upset and in extreme cases, begin to disappear when engaged in all-consuming romance. Interestingly, after his ten-year affair with Claudel, Rodin began another ten-year affair with the British painter, Gwen John. Equally damaged by the relationship, John's self-portraits became increasingly muted and less defined afterwards.
Claudel made The Waltz in the same year that her relationship with Rodin began. In style and in spirit, the work introduced her as a significant artist in her own right, showing a love for the creation of movement in solid form and also her interest in the underlying psychology of relationships. When first exhibited however, the piece was confronted by gendered censorship and ignited indignation from critics; Armand Davot wrote, "this work cannot be accepted (...) the violent reality which emanates from it would forbid it, despite its value, a place in a public gallery." Mainly to ensure funding to get her clay maquette cast in bronze, Claudel modified the sculpture - which originally did present a whole nude woman -before presenting it to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Without realising, by forcibly adding 'a skirt', the critics had in fact added a new dimension to the meaning of this sculpture. Once altered, not only did it prefigure Claudel's own sad disintegration of self, but it also revealed the artist's interest in Art Nouveau, characterised by flowing, non-linear shapes inspired by nature. It is rumoured (although not confirmed) that Claudel may also have had a short relationship with the composer, Claude Debussy, at this time. She gave Debussy the sculpture, which remained in his study until his death.
The year following the official end of her romantic relationship with Rodin, Claudel cast Clotho in plaster. The old, naked woman stands as a vision of writhing horror and despair. All skin and bones, with hanging breasts, and a confused toothless grimace, the woman grows from the rock beneath her and she is being consumed by her own hair. Her unruly locks are also serpent-like as they wrap around her weakened form, perhaps making reference to the snake that lured Eve to her demise. Clotho though is the name of the youngest of the three fates in Greek mythology. Together with her three sisters, Clotho spun the 'thread' of human fate, whilst Lachesis dispensed it and Atropos cut it. Suddenly, the hair of Clotho becomes the thread of life and despite Claudel's sorrow at the loss of her love, she recognises that such is not misfortune as much as the weight of her destiny. It seems too that she is also aware that such a burden will follow her into old age.
Throughout their ten-year relationship, both Claudel and Rodin were interested in the representation of old age. It became somewhat of an obsession in the work of Rodin, who had already explored the theme in She who was the helmet-maker's once beautiful wife (1884). It may be that Claudel had an anxiety surrounding old age, for as their relationship deteriorated she was aware that Rodin was attracted to younger lovers.
The work also shows how as an artist, she is able to portray unapologetic, raw representation of the female nude in a way which was considered scandalous and unacceptable at the time. The plaster model of Clotho shown at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1893 was received with mixed results. While Claudel herself never recovered from the tone of distress that she introduces in this work. Indeed, art historian Griselda Pollock notes, "Alone as a woman of her class, not married to the man with whom she had a sexual relation, perhaps deeply distraught by the loss of love and undergoing major changes in her life cycle, while she watched her own sculptural ideas make Rodin the lionised figure of French sculptures, she may well have had some kind of psychological breakdown."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Camille Claudel
- Camille Claudel: A Sculpture of Interior Solitude (1991)Our PickBy Angelo Caranfa / Detailed account of the artist's life and work
- Camille: The Life of Camille Claudel, Rodin's Muse and Mistress (1988)Our PickBy Reine-Marie Paris
- Mind of Steel and Clay: Camille Claudel (2014)Our PickBy Enrique Laso / Details about the artist's time in an asylum, from the view of her nurse
- Camille Claudel: A Life (2002)By Odile Ayral-CLause / Biography of the artist
- The Art of: Camille Claudel (2017)Our PickDepictions of the artists works
- Museum Devoted to Camille Claudel, Long Overshadowed by Rodin, Opens in FranceOur PickBy Brigit Katz / Smithsonian.Com - Smithsonian Magazine / March 30, 2017
- Museum rescues sculptor Camille Claudel from decades of obscurityOur PickBy Maev Kennedy / The Guardian / March 24, 2017
- How Rodin's tragic lover shaped the history of sculptureOur PickBy Arifa Akbar / Independent / August 10, 2012
- Camille Claudel - Love, Despair, and Auguste RodinBy Zuzanna Stanska / Daily ArtDaily / November 18, 2016
- Camille Claudel: a revulsion of nature. The art of madness or the madness of art?By Othon Bastos / October 2005