His face rests on her cheek, eyes closed, the contact revealing masculinity and surrender together. Her head tilts to the left, her lips almost about to kiss the corner of his neck where – one feels – she tends to sink when looking for peace and protection. The two naked torsos interlace in a close embrace as they dance, while the long cloth that envelops her legs flows to the right, on a robust diagonal movement that follows the twirling of their dancing steps and highlights even further the intensity of the moment.
Time stood still around me – imitating the time that has permanently paused around the two dancers – as I marveled at The Waltz of Camille Claudel displayed in the newly-opened museum in Nogent-sur-Seine – a museum that bears with pride the name of the sculptor and finally pays tribute to her work which had, unfortunately, stayed in obscurity for almost 100 years.
Rarely do lives comprise such passion, drama, creativity, and pain as that of Camille Claudel’s – one of the most brilliant French sculptors of the late 19th century and a representative of the few female artists of her time. At a period in France when women who wanted to be part of the world of Art had to face social prejudice, gender-related challenges in their training, and the male dominance in the Ministry of Fine-Arts and the Salon, Claudel managed to stand out, shaking off even the shadow of Auguste Rodin.
Young Camille arrived as a pupil in Rodin’s atelier when her former teacher – Alfred Boucher, another renowned master – had to move to Italy after winning the Paris Salon prize. Rodin, much older than Claudel and already in a long-term relationship, found in her a muse, a model, and a confidante. He fell in love with her fervor and talent, and they ventured into an affair which lasted for ten years, ended in misery, and marked both their lives forever. Even today, having been Rodin’s lover is among the first phrases used to describe Claudel, while this relationship is regarded as an indelible milestone in her artistic life, or even (by many) a significant cause of her decline into madness and the denial of the full recognition she deserved as a sculptor.
Walking through the museum’s halls that host 43 of her creations, and after having been exposed to the evolution of the French sculpture throughout the golden era of the 19th century with more than 200 works exhibited in all previous halls, the expansion of Claudel’s talent gets easier for me to understand. Initially influenced by her first tutor, Alfred Boucher, and later by Auguste Rodin – the oeuvre of this era also reflecting the impact of their relationship – she was in constant quest of her own identity and refused to settle for anything less than unique. This identity becomes clearer only in the after-Rodin period when she decisively breaks free from any connection and defines her individual voice and style, contributing in opening the way to Naturalism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau in sculpture.
Despite the legacy she has inherited to humanity through her courageous eroticism and brave – often scandalous – experimentation in her work, her life is still obscured by and often simplistically interpreted through the echo of the stormy love affair. However, her processing of the events in her private life, along with her uncommon character, urged her to delve into and express through her art concepts of broader universal value. With intimacy, sensuality, and a much starker passion than what is found in most classical sculpture of the era, she explores the human body (Femme Accroupie), the desire between a man and a woman (La Valse), the future’s infinite possibilities revealed in the non-fully formed face of a child (La Petite Chatelaine), the pain of abandonment (L’Abandon, L’Âge mûr, and L’Implorante), and the simple, everyday-life moments that emanate warmth and humanity (Les Causeuses, and Reve au coin du feu).
Rodin, who, despite his feelings, refused to marry her and, instead, preferred his other partner, is frequently portrayed as the “villain” behind Claudel’s unfortunate ending. Claudel – who, in a fury, destroyed a large part of her work after the break-up – seems to have enhanced this rumor, since she regarded Rodin as the evil competitor who would steal her ideas and who, by using his influence, would destroy her chances of getting any commission by the State. In dire financial need and with no support from her family (her father who had encouraged her talent from the beginning had already died), her fiery temperament – with which Rodin had so much fallen in love – turned into an obsession, bitterness, and darkness. She spent the last thirty years in a mental institution as arranged by her mother and brother. It is not clear whether she was irrevocably mentally ill or she was just rejected by her family who barely visited her throughout these three decades. She finally died in poverty and was buried in anonymity.
Rodin also felt the pain of the separation strongly. His grief and melancholy are permanently imprinted in the female figure that gets engulfed into solid shapelessness in L’Adieu, while there are letters that prove his support – moral and financial – towards Claudel on several occasions throughout the years.
Although their love seems to have been crucial allowing an exchange of inspiration that can be found in the work of both artists, it did not finally overcome prejudices, a conservative social environment, ego, and potential lack of self-confidence. Sometimes, despite the common romantic belief, love just isn’t enough. And this is not necessarily a bad thing: it can open the way for more profound liberation and inner exploration, as the after-Rodin oeuvre of Claudel demonstrates. Sometimes, it is the end of a cycle that can reveal the truths we were so eagerly searching for in the presence of a partner. And, for that, it should be embraced with gratitude.
I left the museum in a state of meditative detachment from reality. The little town of Nogent-sur-Seine was covered in opaque veils of drizzle that reflected any feeble sunlight breaking through the darkness of the clouds. The roads were empty, and the river flowed in eternal serenity, decorated with picturesque timber-framed adobes on either side. The sensation that time had paused in the 19th century – enhancing the feeling that the museum’s exhibition had provoked – was disturbed only by the smoke of the nuclear power plant at the horizon. I headed to the train station and back to Paris, with a taste of Claudel’s fervent passion on my lips, bestowed there like a kiss. Yes, sometimes, love is not enough. But it is always the decisive catalyst for any meaningful change in life.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless otherwise stated)