- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

By Odile Ayral-Clause
Harry N. Abrams, $29.95, 279 pages, illus.

The Paris art community barely noticed when Camille Claudel's sculpture was exhibited there in 1951. She was quite unknown to the larger world as well. Thirty years later, though, a major retrospective of her work attracted considerable interest and a biography by her great-niece described the relationship between Claudel and her teacher and lover, the world-famous Auguste Rodin. Since then her reputation as a sculptor and her celebrity as Rodin's exploited muse have grown.
In 1988 an exhibition brought her work to the National Museum of Women in the Arts here; a year later her life story was made into a romantic French film starring Isabelle Adjani (with the inevitable Gerard Depardieu as Rodin). And now she is the subject of a lavish biography, "Camille Claudel: A Life," by Odile Ayral-Clause, professor of French and the Humanities at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.
It is easy to see why Camille Claudel should attract such interest. Her artistic creation is compelling; her dramatic life story has a mythical quality. Born in 1864, she was the oldest child of a middle-class family in the Champagne region. Like her younger brother, Paul (who became a noted author and diplomat), she had a strong, fierce personality and obvious artistic gifts. Trying to meet the needs of Camille and Paul (another child, Louise, was more conventional), Madame Claudel moved with the children to Paris and an apartment in Montparnasse, while Camille's father continued to support the family from his provincial civil service job.
At 17, Camille enrolled in a venerable old art school, the Villa Colarossi. Two years later, she began sharing a sculpture studio with an young Englishwoman, Jessie Lipscomb, and soon after that both women started studying with and working for Auguste Rodin.
Rodin was then in his early 40s and just beginning to be recognized as the formidable genius he was. By 1885, both Jessie and Camille were assisting him in his work on the monumental "Burghers of Calais," and Rodin was deeply in love with the 21 year-old Camille. Though Rodin continued to live with his common-law wife, Rose Beuret (whom he married in 1917 when both he and she were close to death), he and Camille spent their days together in the studio they shared. Camille quarreled with Jessie, her brother Paul left for a foreign posting and more and more she isolated herself with Rodin. Both artists exhibited regularly and enjoyed successes.
But the relationship was never a placid one. Camille was always jealous of Rose and resentful of Rodin's unwillingness to leave her. She suffered frequent ill health. And, despite her success in having her work exhibited and widely admired, she was frustrated by not receiving state commissions, as Rodin did, and was infuriated by critics who felt she had been overly influenced by her master. In the early 1890s Camille broke with Rodin.
Following the breakup she was productive, creating several small sculpted scenes that were quite unlike anything she had learned from Rodin and working on a large three-figure piece called "L'Age mur" which showed a man turning his back on a beautiful, despairing young woman and being led by a decrepit female figure. The work excited considerable interest but was rejected for exhibition at the 1900 Universal Exhibition where Rodin triumphed with his monumental statue of Honore de Balzac and the unfinished "Gates of Hell."
Camille had always been moody and she possessed what Paul called a "ferocious gift for sarcasm." The well known photo of her at 20 (passed over for the book's cover in favor of a more conventional shot) shows a beautiful but cheerless face, a determined expression, unruly dark hair and a carelessly arranged lace collar.
In the years following her breakup with Rodin, Camille began to show signs of the paranoia that would intensify as years went by. She became convinced that Rodin was out to destroy her, to steal her ideas and her work; later she accused him of trying to poison her food and kill her. In addition, despite the fact that her parents and brother helped her financially, as did Rodin on occasion, she was always worried about money.
By 1910 she was no longer exhibiting at the annual Paris Salon. More and more she stayed in her Ile St. Louis studio, which became filthy and cramped with debris; her person was dirty and unkempt, the neighbors complained. When she felt a French functionary was slighting her, she sent him a letter filled with cat feces. She began destroying some of her sculptures and burned many of her letters. In 1913, Camille's mother and brother made the decision her recently deceased father had opposed to have her committed to an asylum for the mentally impaired. She was taken first to Ville-Evrard, in the suburbs of Paris and later, at the start of World War I, was moved to Montdevergues in the south of France where she died, 30 years later, in 1943.
In her biography, the author states that her goal in taking on this fascinating and complex story is to "dispel the myths enveloping Claudel." To that end she has drawn on a great many sources including letters and records previously unpublished and has devoted considerable space to interesting photos and analysis of Camille's work. But her telling of Camille Claudel's life suffers from a surfeit of detail, sloppy editing (several quotes appear twice), and analysis that seems to obscure rather than clarify events and relationships. It is also burdened by the writer's need continuously to assign blame.
Rodin, Madame Claudel, Paul, the "sexist values of her time," the French law which allowed family members to have a relative committed to an institution simply on the basis of a doctor's recommendation all are blamed for Camille's sad fate.
Certainly, these were all contributing factors. Rodin, passionately taken with Camille both as a woman and as an artist, could not give her security or unequivocal love. Sadly, there is little documentation in Camille's own voice of her feelings about the relationship.
The author asserts that "there is no doubt that her love for Rodin was not rooted in passion" though it is unclear on what she bases this. She does write convincingly that Camille had "at least one abortion" and had good reason to think Rodin intended to marry her. She also says that Rodin "probably used his power" to ensure that Camille's sculpture "l'Age mur" (which seems to depict his abandonment of Camille) was rejected from the Universal Exhibition.
We know that Camille was convinced that this was true but the reader is less sure. Why "probably?" Rodin had certainly harmed Camille unintentionally. Did he also seek to do so? The evidence is not clear.
Camille's family relations, too, were difficult. Paul wrote that in the home of their childhood "everyone quarreled." Her parents and brother were willing and able to make considerable sacrifices to further her education and career but, after years of dealing with her erratic behavior and temper, her mother became embittered toward her. She never visited her in the asylum (though she did send food and clothing). Fearing that Camille would malign her, she even requested that visitors and mail be forbidden (and to some extent they were).
Paul genuinely admired her art, considering her "much superior to Rodin," and was tortured after her death by "bitter, bitter regret at having abandoned her so long." He asked himself, "did we do all we could, my parents and I?" It is hard to forgive Madame Claudel's refusal to consider having Camille released, or even moved closer to the family, despite the fact that the doctors were reporting a lessening of her paranoia and a general improvement in her condition. The letters in which Camille complains of her isolation and pleads with her mother and brother for "freedom" are painfully poignant.
The author finds that, as a woman, Camille faced societal pressures that Paul, for example, was spared. Both were subject to violent anger and aggressive behavior but Paul, she writes, could channel his energy into "fanatic" religion and diplomacy; his "eccentricities were forgiven (while) Camille's were condemned." Camille was both remarkably indifferent to what "society" thought about her and completely lacking in interest in "women's" issues. And religion, if not diplomacy, was as possible for her as for Paul. If her sex handicapped her in being accepted as an artist, this is not shown. The stigma of her affair with Rodin was not what destroyed Camille Claudel.
Indeed, Rodin remained concerned about Camille's career for years after their breakup. He wrote to her assuring her of her "genius," asking her advice and encouraging her to work. He sent out numerous letters promoting her work and trying to have a piece of hers admitted to the Luxembourg Museum. He welcomed the idea of devoting a room to her work in the Hotel Biron, which became the Musee Rodin after his death. Perceptively, he wrote to her, "You have against you the difficulties of life and of your imagination."
Shortly before taking Camille to the asylum, Paul wrote to a friend, "I am exactly like my sister, although more of a weakling and more of a dreamer, and without God's grace, my story might have been hers or even worse." He saw Camille's life as tragic in the classical sense of the word, "drawn to disaster by a fatal flaw."
In attempting to "dispel the myths enveloping Claudel," Odile Ayral-Clause might have listened more closely to those who knew her best. Both Auguste Rodin and Paul Claudel seem to have seen her in much the same way beautiful, brilliant, determined and tragically without defenses against the cruel realities of human nature in the people around her and within her own self.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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