Sunday, June 22, 2008

When Camille Met Auguste: Part Two

Camille Claudel - La Valse (detail), 1889-95

[Claudel] remained confident that in time her talent would be publicly recognised. Time, though, was running out. At her age, Rodin hadn't made much more progress socially, nor acquired many more graces. But women reached a social zenith that lasted as long as their youthful beauty; men seemed ever more attractive as they aged. The asset Claudel might have parlayed into professional opportunities was diminishing, while Rodin's artistic success was beginning to glow with a sexual aura.

. . .

Rodin's identity after the 1880s merged aesthetics with sexuality. He believed that his art and his virility came from the same source, and so did his contemporaries.

. . .

The marks of vigorous modelling Rodin left in clay, or the swift signs on paper, his ability to combine human figures in endlessly new permutations, the sheer quantity of his output and, above all, the erotic themes of his sculpture, all became indistinguishable from his personal sexuality. No one seemed able to write about Rodin's work, least of all Rodin himself, without using sexual metaphors. Language conflated nature, masculinity, and creativity. Bourdelle called his teacher "the great penetrator of human forms," and the different ways we might read that epithet today all meant the same things then.

. . .

Rodin's meanings empowered [his] avant-garde audience, enhanced their identity, freed them from ordinary bourgeois social constraints, and gave women - among them, of course, Camille Claudel - a newly positive belief in their own potential.

Rodins' work, however, carried different sexual meanings to other audiences. Nor were the formal messages of his sculpture immune, even among their intended audience, from the social values then prevailing in Europe. To anyone not versed in the elaborate terminology and sophistication of the art world, and to more than a few intellectuals once they stopped talking aesthetics, the figure of a headless, limbless woman with her legs splayed was nothing but a cunt.

Auguste Rodin - Iris, 1890

When he represented women, Rodin sedulously separated all signs of agency, individuality, or thought from any signs of sexuality. Far from guaranteeing a complete potency, women's gender was understood as a biological limitation. In Rodin's work, sexuality promises to unite men, but differentiates among women. Rodin treated upper-class women as portraits and his hired models as anonymous sexual creatures. Of course, what woman would want to pay to be represented by her genitalia? But isn't that the point? No woman whose class or economic situation allowed her any control over Rodin's production would tolerate this interpretation of other women for herself, because she understood the current derogatory implications of those representations all too clearly, despite their formal beauty. And no amount of social power then available to any woman could make her into a Thinker.

. . .

Rodin could not fundamentally alter Claudel's problem. Both in her professional carer and in her personal life, she still had to choose between the rigidly distinct options of respectability or sexuality. But she refused to choose. Unwilling or unable to understand her situation, Claudel persisted in her utopian desire to live outside the matrimonial laws of patriarchy and, at the same time, to practice the traditionally elite art of sculpture with perfect liberty.

. . .

This situation was not Rodin's personal responsibility; nor were Claudel's individual decisions. On the contrary, no one artist, not even the world's greatest living artist (as he began to be so often called) could affect gender roles in any significant way. Both Rodin and Claudel played out mythic roles they could neither determine nor alter. Rodin's turned on his talent...Hers overwhelmed her.

. . .

Only in her sculpture itself did she manoeuvre around social expectations. Even in her wok she seemed preoccupied with her own gender inasmuch as the majority of her figures represent women. Yet her version of gender is different - different from Rodin's, from that of his more sexually conservative peers, and from the earlier work of notable women sculptors, such as Marcello, or Harriet Hosmer. More importantly, in her sculptures of women we can discern no clear boundary between sexual and asexual...She represented the very young and the very old, the exultant and the despairing, the destitute and the wealthy. She sculpted women alone and in groups, meditative or addressing each other. None is the object of pity, sentimentality, or jest.

. . .

Claudel, whose work escaped the rules of femininity, succumbed to their retributions in her life. After her break with Rodin around 1893, she became increasingly reclusive and paranoid. Although critics like Gustave Kahn and the ever-loyal Morhardt, along with her brother, the poet Paul Claudel, wrote in her favour, and though the dealer Eugene Blot promoted what she produced as best he could through exhibitions and editions, she produces less and less, especially after 1905. She shut herself in an unkempt studio, collected cats, annoyed the neighbours. She raved about Rodin, accused him of stealing her ideas, of maligning her, of spying on her. The imbalance in their relationship had been magnified into madness. She had become merely an episode in his private life, whereas he had become a specter that haunted her and made her unable to distinguish between past and present, between her career and her psyche.

On March 2, 1913, Claudel's father died. His support of her had never wavered. Three days later, her brother Paul obtained a certificate from a doctor that authorised him, under an 1839 French law, to incarcerate his sister against her will. On March 10, Camille Claudel was seized in her studio and confined to an asylum for the insane. In asylums she remained for the rest of her life, first at Ville-Evrard and then at Monedevergues, near Avignon. She pleaded by letter to be released, but to no avail. Her mother answered one letter by writing to Claudel's doctor, "She has all the vices, I don't want to see her again." Claudel died in 1943 after thirty years of imprisonment.

Camille Claudel - The Age of Maturity, c. 1893-99

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

Musique Du Jour: Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner

From My Notebook