THE VANISHING OF CAMILLE CLAUDEL [EXCERPT]
Erin M. Bertram
"As recently as twenty years ago, in France, Camille Claudel was known only to a handful of admirers. The brief moments of applause she had enjoyed during her lifetime had never led to important commissions, and the sales of her pieces remained few and far between. The exhibitions of her sculpture before and after her death were so poorly attended that they mostly attracted the few idealistic critics who stubbornly persisted in praising the sculptor. Yet these circumstances were to change so suddenly that in the space of a few months Camille Claudel would take on the stature of a mythical figure."
"In Claudel's work, the sculptures begin to emerge from the larger piece of rock from which they were carved. At some critical point of non-completion, she abandons the sculpture. No, not abandons, rather Claudel allows the sculpture to exist at the moment between. Eve made, Eve-as-Rib, perhaps even still within the Body of Adam."
"I think of you and I am quiet, my work is in your hands, no longer wet and touched by your finger."
"Only in her sculpture itself did she maneuvre around social expectations. Even in her work she seemed preoccupied with her own gender inasmuch as the majority of her figures represent women.... Most importantly, in her sculptures of women we can discern no clear boundary between sexual and asexual. Claudel refused to divide women into the proverbial virgins and whores.... 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."
"The two artists exchanged preliminary models of plaster or terra cotta (clay) in the workshop. Sometimes these works resemble each other to such an extent that it is impossible to distinguish whose hands actually made them. Claudel kept, among her own works, fragments modeled by Rodin, such as the Head of Avarice. She also left plasters that she had sculpted in Rodin's studio. Therefore, unintentionally, some of Claudel's works were cast in bronze after Rodin's death and given his signature. Two of these works are Head of a Slave and Laughing Man."
"All we know with certainty is that their decade together was the most innovative and the most productive of both their careers."
When Mother found out I was sleeping with Rodin, she barred me from returning to the family home, claiming I was overcome with passion's deep rouging of the mind, which I was—I was barricaded "kept" in the other sense of the word, for doing that which allowed me to forget myself, even my own name.
Being disowned is a terrible, sharpened thing.
But more awful is to be dismissed, simply & absolutely, like refuse, a dank, unwanted thing.
"C" for Camille.
"C" for Claudel.
To the wind with her.
I exhibited my work at the Salon des Artistes Français, & the Salon d'Automne.
I did that on my own.
I did everything on my own.
All while carrying eros within me like an envelope pinned to the lining of my dress.
"One thinks of how small man's hands are, how soon they tire, and how little time is given them to move. And one longs to see these hands that have lived like a hundred hands; like a nation of hands that rose before sunrise for the accomplishment of this work. One asks for the man who directs these hands. Who is this man?"
In the early days of our courtship, Rodin, twenty-four years on top of me, wrote me letters, love letters, letters driven by desire, by a foolhardy devotion to my form, my limp subtle, but always present.
Lines like this left me damp between the hips, hungry to be those sounds in the night, the movement that only stops in fits to catch its breath: My very dearest down on both knees before your beautiful body which I embrace. We worked one another, moving, like hands through plaster & water.
"I go to bed naked to make myself believe that you are there but when I wake up it is not the same thing."
"Meanwhile, Rodin called his most important, and most reproduced, male nude The Thinker (1880), and endowed his figure of the writer Balzac with a phallic sexuality that rendered his prowess total. Both of these masterpieces by Rodin offered the vision of a masculine power that fused the intellectual with the physical to make mind and body one. When he represented women, however, 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."
Rodin used me for his work.
He never called me muse, but he used me to make art, to make his art more fully what it was.
For hours, days, I sat, willing, unpaid, neglecting on my own work.
I sat willingly.
You can trace my likeness in Thought, France, Dawn, Camille Claudel Wearing a Bonnet, & others, many of which Rodin rarely placed on display.
As if he wanted me all for himself.
In Assemblage: Mask of Camille Claudel and Left Hand of Pierre de Wissant, he captured my gaze as a sinister hand hovers above my head, reaching, silently, for what would be my hair.
And, in The Farewell, there I am again, this time mouth covered—ambivalently?—by a pair of hands far too small to be my own.
Whose hands are they?
"There are among the works of Rodin's hands, single, small hands which, without belonging to a body, are alive. Hands that rise, irritated and in wrath; hands whose five fingers seem to bark like the five jaws of a dog of Hell."
I was many things, &, likewise, I was many things to him: his student, model, lover, collaborator, reason for coaxing coy figures, one after the other, a line of silent pupils, from the stone, at times, even, his parent—ours was a relationship like that of mother & infant: my Young Girl with Sheaf precursor to his Galatea, his Three Female Fauns suggestive of my The Wave.
In letters to me, I was "Mlle Say," phonetic sobriquet for "Mademoiselle C."
"C" for Camille.
"C" for Claudel.
"C" for "cocotte"—a fashionable prostitute, derogatory.
Likened to a Dutch oven.
"Dear Dr. Truelle,
Long ago, I asked you to bring a person from my family. I have been buried here for more than nine months in the most awful despair. During this time, they took my atelier and all my belongings.
I absolutely need to see a friend. I hope you will not refuse to grant me this request.
Beginning in 1892, Rodin & I no longer shared a bed.
He remained with Rose Beuret throughout the entirety of our relationship.
In the end, he refused to leave her.
His Bust of Rose begins at the neck & goes up, the model's eyes downcast, the skin of her face resembling the patchwork grain of papier-mâché.
A severe portrait to say the least, but she was his chosen subject.
By this point, the animal of jealousy was wound tight between us, the snared muzzle facing me.
Then, an unforeseen pregnancy ended just as abruptly as it had begun.
She was his chosen subject.
I once overheard a doctor speaking with another doctor who said the following: Patient ppears placid, though agitated, uneasy. She often does not know what to do with her hands.
And it's true.
After the split with Rodin, I produced less & less.
It's as if my hands were growing larger & larger with each passing day.
"She has all the vices, I don't want to see her again."
In a gesture toward truce, an entente between former lovers, Rodin convinced the state to commission a piece shaped by my hands.
It was 1895, & a bittersweet request.
The sculpture, The Age of Maturity, took me four years to complete.
And now the figures stand together, forever, in bronze, tormented, exquisite—they stand together, forever.
His constant companion, Rose, his tether in every sense of the word: a rope or chain with which an animal is tied to restrict its movement.
Just after it was displayed to the public, the government suddenly declined its purchase.
In the first version, the man is torn between the two women, but, in the second, he's made his choice: the older of the two.
And I'm left, bereft, youthful—fumbling.
I'm on my knees.
"You're wrong to think it's about you. You're a sculptor, Rodin, not a sculpture. You ought to know. I am that old woman with nothing on her bones. And the aging young girl...that's also me. And the man is me, too. Not you. I gave him my toughness. He gave me his emptiness in return. There you are...three times me. The Holy Trinity, trinity of emptiness."
Of it, Paul said: My sister Camille, imploring, humiliated, on her knees, that superb, proud creature, and what is being wrenched from her, right there before your very eyes, is her soul.
But he was wrong.
It wasn't my soul—it was my heart.
There's a difference.
I ask you, without reproach, stripped of irony's cool air, what does it mean to survive?
"My Camille be assured that I feel love for no other woman, and that my soul belongs to you...don't threaten me and let me see you. Let your soft hand show your kindness for me and sometimes leave it there so that I can kiss it."
It was 1886.
Rodin's The Kiss depicts the act of lovemaking—she slender, he strong—the power of desire butted up firmly against its potential, though no doubt pleasurable, force.
But later, my Vertumnus and Pomona—or Abandon—while depicting the very same act, represents, instead, the reciprocity that might lead to climax by another route—the male crouched & slender, the female, subtly muscled, standing above him.
"If the sight of women's sexuality sometimes disturbed his [Rodin's] contemporaries, the spectacle of women's economic or intellectual control over their sexuality terrified them."
In 1889, I gave Rodin a gift: a bust of himself, in bronze, as a young man, boasting a full, striking beard, the kind a man could strike you with. He was pleased.
A few years later, I'd find myself in Touraine, taking a room at the Château de l'Islette, alone.
There, I carved The Waltz, unintentionally working in threes.
"From whichever side you look, the profiles are always accurate, without any fault, correction or hesitation."
Version one, 1892: both man & woman naked, caught up in the dance, eros whipping them into a delightfully unbalanced reverie.
The Inspector General of the Ministry of Fine Arts disapproved, though, on grounds of indecency—its surprising sensuality of expression, its violent accent of reality.
The closeness of the sexual organs is rendered with surprising sensuality, which is considerably reinforced by the absolute nudity of all the human details.
And so I was barred—as none of my male contemporaries would have been—from securing state commission.
Persona non grata.
Again, barricaded from the house.
"Mademoiselle Claudel only wants to do the nude, so we should let her, for it is right and as she does not want drapery she would only do it badly."
Version two, 1893: only one of the woman's legs, her shoulders, & her throat are exposed.
Still the state refused.
Version three, 1895: his body is bare, as is hers, the tumbled bed sheets falling loosely about her hips like a gown.
About her hips, loosely, falling, like a gown.
"He [Rodin] could work on the assumption of his gender, and forget about it. Hers overwhelmed her. The most sympathetic critics put her gender in conflict with her talent. Mirbau called her 'A revolt against nature: the woman of genius.' Morhardt assigned her a masculine gender: 'She is of the race of heroes.'"
I was once asked how I knew there were people hidden inside the stone.
You either know, or you don't.
And I knew how to draw them out.
Knew onyx, too, & intimately, a medium that makes well-worked hands small birds helpless beneath their mother's breast.
But I abandoned tabletop ornament for blocks of stone, heaving, breathing monoliths that told me they wanted out by way of the iron in my fist, the chisel & the hammer, instruments that were never more than twenty feet from me at any given hour.
I was a woman, &, as a woman, was made to stumblefoot, to fumble headlong unfastening the buckles that strapped me down to rough, wooden planks.
The buckles that strapped me, daily, down to myself.
"My little Paul,
You came to see me in May...and I made you promise not to neglect me so terribly. Madhouses are made to inflict suffering. It can't be helped...especially if you never see anyone. They try to force me to sculpt here. They don't succeed, so they make trouble for me. Don't forget, Paul, your sister is in prison with madwomen. Mama wrote the doctor...that I mean to harm you. That I detest you and am out to hurt you. It's not true. I wish she would take me to Villeneuve with her. Do you think I enjoy spending months, years like this without any news or hope? Where does such ferocity come from?
How did they manage to change you so? I'd really like to know. You might as well sendme to Siberia. Did you take care of my things? Are they in Villeneuve? Be careful they don't fall into Rodin's hands. He's so afraid I might come back. That's why he's keeping me here, isn't it, Paul? I would like to go home and close the door tightly. I don't know if I'll be able to realize this dream to be home. Oh, God, I wish I were in Villeneuve.
Your sister in exile."
Did my hands not ache nights like Rodin's?
Did my knuckles not split from lifting—hauling, hand over fist—shapes from the stone?
My brother, who signed the papers—who committed me—would write: A work by Camille Claudel in the middle of an apartment is, by its sole shape, like the curious rocks collected by the Chinese, a sort of monument to inner thought, the seed of a theme offered to all dreams.
"At the Paris Salon of 1893, the public was astonished to discover a scrawny, old female nude tangled in her long hair: Camille Claudel's Clotho."
In the other famous portrait of me, I'm sixty-five—hollow, haggard, my hands dumb stones resting in my lap.
It was 1929.
What does it mean to have two hands & use them?
I had become Clotho—a sober, unflinchingly real depiction of old age, a woman overtaken by the very body she inhabits—ironically, the youngest of the three Fates.
In Greek, she who spins—she who spins & spins the thread of destiny.
It's as if her hair has become the very thread she has, with her mighty distaff, spun, her hair colossal—a wave—enveloping her body, which has become, in its age, a strangely gaunt, wan spool.
"Rodin would die in 1917, one year after the faithful Beuret, whom he had finally married just weeks before her death. Toward the end he was also still secretly sending money to ensure Claudel's comfort at the asylum. If it wasn't an ideal romance, it was in its way an enduring one"
As he developed the image, the photographer, husband to my dear friend Jessie—whose sculptor's hands cracked & bled as we slept, two parallel beams, in our damp Parisian studio years ago—made a silver gelatin print, called it "Camille Claudel at the Montdevergues Public Asylum at Montfavet."
Was translated from ghost back into an audible language.
Was given back my body.
"On the 5th of June 1914, a year after the confinement of Camille Claudel at Montdevergues, near Avignon and five years before the opening of the Rodin Museum, Mathias Morhardt, her faithful friend, suggested to Rodin that a hall be reserved at the Hôtel Biron for the presentation of some choice works of this unforgettable person, who had been his student, model and love. The master, as these lines bear witness, greeted this proposition with eagerness—'the principle to take several sculptures of Mlle Say (Claudel's initial pronounced phonetically in French) gives me great pleasure.' It was finally in 1952 with Camille Claudel['s] exhibition at the Rodin Museum[,] that his wish was fulfilled."
I would spend three decades in all, what some call a life, partitioned from myself.
But in another version of Clotho, the old woman's torso & head are all that remain, her arms & legs, even her heavy hair, no longer there, her gaze cast upward, off into the distance, as if at the horizon above the ocean at sunset, or at some unnamed, still indefinite thing rising over a hill & slowly approaching.
It's as if she's untethered, lifted from the burden of her body.
It's almost as if she's free.
What does it mean to capture an image?
What does it mean to release it?
The following sources were consulted in the writing of this manuscript, and sections within quotation marks, as well as certain italicized lines, are adapted from them:
Auguste Rodin. Rainer Maria Rilke. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006.
Camille Claudel. Film. Bruno Nuytten. 1988.
Camille Claudel. National Museum of Women in the Arts. Website. 2011.
Camille Claudel: A Life. Odile Ayral-Clause. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.
Camille Claudel and Rodin: Fateful Encounter. Detroit Institute of Art. Website. 9 Oct 2005-5 Feb 2006.
"Journal, Day Three: Poetry and Painting." Kazim Ali. Poetry Foundation. Website. 5 Apr 2006.
"Myths of Creation: Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin." Anne Higonnet. Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership. Eds. Chadwick Whitney & Isabelle de Courtivron. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.
Orsay Sculpture. Anne Pingeot. Paris: Éditions Scala, 2003.
Rodin: Eros & Creativity. Eds. Rainer Crone & Siegfried Salzmann. New York: Prestel, 1992.
Rodin: Le Musée et Ses Collections. Jacques Vilain. Paris: Éditions Scala, 1996.
"The Rodin Museum." The Rodin Museum. Pamphlet. Paris, 2004.
Rodin: Sculptures et Dessins. Gilles Néret. Köln: Taschen, 2003.
"Room 6: Camille Claudel (1864-1943)." The Rodin Museum. Pamphlet. Paris, n.d.
I wrote this piece over the last decade after encountering Claudel's sculpture [Torso of Clotho] at the Musée d'Orsay during the summer of 2004. I was awestricken, immediately, and spent the next hour alone with it while my friends went on ahead. This sculpture remains one of the most beautiful and haunting works of art I've ever encountered. Its austere beauty, the frisson I felt that day, the keen sense of awareness and wonder—I haven't been able to shake it. Claudel's iconic, enigmatic story(s) seemed to merit telling, with her own voice rising above the rest, like a soloist with a choir backing.