Saturday, June 21, 2008

When Camille Met Auguste: Part One

Camille Claudel, 1884 (photographer unknown)

Auguste Rodin, 1893 (photographed by Nadar)

When Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin met in 1883 or 1883, she had already demonstrated artistic talent. Born in 1864, she had begun to model clay around 1876 without any encouragement. Since then, she had enlisted the support of her father, Louis-Prosper, and her brother Paul, and antagonised both her mother Louis and her sister, also called Louise. She had been noticed by a local sculptor, Alfred Boucher, and had managed to get herself to Paris, centre of the European art world, in order to obtain the training necessary for a career in sculpture. She knew what she wanted, but the professional art world offered few opportunities for women. The École des Beaux-Arts, that most prestigious school of all, did not admit women. They were also excluded in practice, if not in theory, from full participation in the raucous, bawdy life of productive sculpture studios. Undaunted, Claudel joined other ambitious young women who rented their own studios and attended the respectable but cloistered Académie Colarossi. There was no tradition of women sculptors to inspire them; they didn't even imagine one, so fully did they believe in their ability to belong to the art world as they knew it.

. . .

No one wonders...why Claudel was attracted to Rodin. He represented not only the success she desired, but also the success of desire. She wanted to be a sculptor in her own right, and every young artist then took the interest of an eminent senior artist as a good sign that one day he or she would be famous. In the case of a woman, however, it was also a form of success in itself to be sexually desired by a successful man, so much so that feminine desire consisted at least partly in the desire to be desired. Nor does anyone wonder why Rodin was drawn to Claudel, although for different reasons. She was a beautiful young woman who was willing to have an affair without demanding the usual bourgeois feminine rewards of marriage, a household, children, and social status. She freely gave herself as the object of his desire.

. . .

Banished from her parent's home when they discovered the sexual aspect of her ties to Rodin, Claudel lived and worked for much of this time in a decrepit villa called the Folie Neubourg on the Boulevard d'Italie. Apparently Rodin paid the rent and her expenses. No trace of any regular salary survives even though she was performing exactly the same kind of tasks with which he had earned his living in earlier years. She modeled parts of the works that he signed, probably some of the small figures in his Gates of Hell (still unfinished at his death), almost certainly the hands and feet of his 1886 Burghers of Calais: two of the monumental projects that made him famous. She carved some of his marbles, for she had the gift of the craft, which he did not. In addition, she posed for several of his sculptures, an extremely time-consuming task that was normally a paid profession, and that kept her away from her own sculpture. No records were kept of how she spent her time, or who was working on which pieces at exactly what stage of their development.

. . .

Nevertheless, we have now - and their contemporaries had then - a mode of interpretation to fall back on by default. In the absence of evidence, art historians have assumed that she imitated him, and that her achievement consisted in executing his ideas. The absence in Claudel's case has been extreme. For a very long time most of Claudel's surviving works remained in private, uncatalogued collections. The few traces of her production were scattered, if not lost, whereas Rodin hoarded every conceivable bit of information pertinent to himself and passed it on to a permanently staffed institution. The profession of art history has always measured the chronology and value of the unknown by the scale of what it does know. On occasion, this attitude has taken the extreme form of automatically attributing works produced during the period of Rodin's and Claudel's affair to Rodin . . . Claudel's retreat to the private world of Folie Neubourg allowed the public to imagine her work according to its habits.

. . .

Claudel worked in seclusion on the assumption - shared at least theoretically by her contemporaries - that artistic genius came from within an individual and would be recognised in proportion to its intrinsic merit. It was perhaps the surest sign of Claudel's provincial and feminine upbringing that she could not gauge how fully, in practice, any artistic career depended on institutions, social connections, financial self-promotion, and a strategically chosen stylistic position. Nor did she understand that for the men who controlled a public art world, her professional reputation would never emerge from under their interpretation of her private life. In their eyes, her sexuality eclipsed her work because she was a woman and therefore, according to their acquired expectations, an innately sexual rather than intellectual being. They had become aware of her sexuality as the object of Rodin's desire; therefore her story could exist only as part of his story.

From Myths of Creation: Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin by Anne Higonnet

Musique Du Jour: Dracula (soundtrack), Wojciech Kilar