I guess as an English teacher I’m so strongly a creature of narrative that I’m not very compelled by visual art unless I see the story behind it. It feels silly to me that I can’t just appreciate art for art’s sake without constantly yearning for plot (sometimes I read the written description of a work before I take a fair look at it), but in the immortal words of Popeye, “I yam what I yam,” and I need narrative. That’s why the art of Camille Claudel just about knocked my legs out from under me when my friend Jenny and I visited the Rodin museum in Paris this summer.
I wanted to go to the museum to see The Thinker. Honestly, that was pretty much the only Rodin sculpture I knew, and I figured since we’d purchased museum passes, we could duck in for a few minutes and see what was there. While we were waiting in line to enter the 17th century mansion (once Rodin’s workshop) that houses many of his sculptures, I read the museum’s brochure. It mentioned that in addition to the work of Rodin, we would see sculptures created by his pupil and protege, Camille Claudel. I had never heard of her.
Camille demonstrated remarkable artistic talent early in life, at a time when women who wanted to do anything besides being marry and bear children faced enormous societal opposition and often active oppression. She began studying with Rodin when she was 19 and he was 43, and they soon became lovers despite the fact that he was in a long term partnership with another woman who was also the mother of his son. Her situation was impossible. If she had moral scruples or pangs of conscience about her relationship with Rodin, she could hardly have voiced them. This man not only towered over her in terms of age and life experience; he was also a demi-god in his craft. She was struggling to make a place for herself in a world hostile to women. She probably worshiped him; he capitalized on her adoration. She never had a chance.
In 1890, she sculpted The Waltz, a beautiful bronze statue that depicts pair of lovers intertwined in a dance. It’s full of movement, emotion, and intense mutual passion. At the same time, it’s almost a little sad, as if the lovers understand that their relationship is temporary. They are tilting, almost falling, clinging to each other as though they know they won’t be able to stand much longer. Beautiful and sad.
Then there’s the sculpture she crafted in 1894-95. Having read about Camille’s life, I saw the story behind the statue, and I experienced the most powerful emotional response I’ve ever had to a work of art. It’s called The Age of Maturity and it’s ostensibly about a man leaving behind his youth and moving forward into old age. What it’s really about is Rodin leaving Camille and returning to his partner Rose. The man has just turned away from the young girl to accept the older woman’s embrace, and the space between their just-parted hands is so inexpressibly, poignantly sorrowful that it brought me to tears. And that longing, grieving, broken look on her face! It haunted me for hours afterward and I kept seeing it everywhere, like when you stare for too long at a bright light.
A few short years after completing Maturity, Camille sculpted another statue of three figures, this time using onyx, a notoriously difficult material to manipulate. It depicts three young women, all remarkably similar in appearance, who were frolicking happily in the water moments ago, but are now about to be overcome by a massive green-and-gold wave. They cling to each other frantically, small and fragile, helpless beside the wave’s power. Soon they will be engulfed and swept away, perhaps forever, perhaps to their deaths.
Camille Claudel experienced a series of violent outbursts and mental breakdowns that culminated in being committed to an insane asylum, where she eventually died. Near the end of her life she wrote, “I live in a world that is so curious, so strange. Of the dream which was my life, this is the nightmare.”
There are a number of reasons why I think Camille’s life and art are so compelling. First, there is her story’s inherent pathos, a tragedy that evokes deep pity. She was a brilliant, tortured soul who lived in an era unkind to genius in women. Swept away by a relationship in which there was a terrible imbalance of power, she lost herself completely and died alone.
Second, I think that her art powerfully communicates universal themes. Life-shattering love. Deep, unfulfilled longing. Terrifying loneliness. The fraying edges of a tormented mind. We all have ways of responding to the seeming hopelessness of the human condition. Camille’s response was through sculpture, and she articulated brilliantly the fears and doubts that plague the human race. We see ourselves reflected back to us in Camille’s statues.
Finally, what I see in Camille’s art that impresses me most is true of many other artists as well. While many of us go through life working hard to ignore and suppress fundamental truths about the human condition (like our mortality and fragility), artists confront these realities directly. They look honestly into human suffering. If they are not artists like Thomas Kinkade, they present us with a world that is broken, in need of saving. I think this is why many artists descend into madness–the creation of great art requires that they do not manufacture the elaborate defense mechanisms that most of us build in order to live sanely and rationally in the “real world.”
I am glad that Camille Claudel (and artists like her) created art that startles me, that shows me beauty and darkness and pain in the world and awakens me from numbing effects of busy-ness and materialism. I am sorry for the tragic life she lived, but I am grateful for the stories she left behind in the form of artworks that speak deeply to what it means to be human.