In France, Rodin’s apprentice Camille Claudel is legendary, so why isn’t she more well known here, asks Carol Bruneau
Camille Claudel first crossed my radar a decade ago, on a class visit to a Rodin exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. “What’s ‘The Thinker’ thinking?” someone asked. The answer – “What’s for lunch?” – seemed apropos, given a display my students steered me to, a kind of sidebar to the modernist master’s career. It told of his apprentice/mistress/model, a sculptor who died in 1943 after spending 30 years in an asylum.
Claudel was just 18, Rodin – whom she came to despise – 42, when they met in Paris and began an affair. A notorious philanderer, he simultaneously kept another mistress, conceding to marry her in old age, the day before she died. It was the early 1880s: women needed government dispensations to wear pants, and ambitious girls made easy prey. Dress codes aside, plus ça change?
Hooked, I read everything available in English on Claudel. Apart from two slender biographies, this material was confined to works on Rodin. Treating sex as an artistic perk, and Claudel a troubled collaborator, Rodin’s biographers gloss misogyny’s part in the tale. Letting not her work but schizophrenia – or “persecution mania” as it was known in 1913 – define the artist, they silenced her.
Three years spent poring over pictures of Claudel’s sculptures passed before I saw the work first-hand. On a visit to Paris, I attended the first-ever Claudel retrospective, held at Musée Rodin 65 years after Claudel’s death in Montdevergues Asylum. Seeing her work made me cry. Her marble figures have that effect, their expressions ranging from a child’s wonder at glimpsing adulthood to a man’s anguish as death pulls him from youth. Earthy and ethereal, all flux and uncertainty, they summon a whole gamut of feelings.
While true to their classical roots, her sculptures are timelessly edgy, distinct from Rodin’s stolid, romantic representations – especially of her – which now seem kitschy and self-serving. Tastes change, though brilliance doesn’t. In France, Claudel is legendary. So why, across the Atlantic, does her name still draw blanks?
In Paris’s soft April dusk I cried outside the last flat Camille called home, on Île St. Louis overlooking the Seine. I saw the window she was dragged through when her family committed her, after poverty and isolation – art-making’s wolves, made fat by Claudel’s mental illness – ended her career.
A flâneur, I retraced her steps – past the site of Rodin’s atelier on the rue de l’Université, through the Marais and Montparnasse, past apartments she’d shared with her parents and a studio she and other female students rented. Deep in the 14th arrondissement, I circled the wall around Hôpital Ste-Anne, the asylum to which she’d begged to be transferred – a request her family ignored. She’d caused enough grief, her mother wrote.
Fuelled by baguettes and wine, and accompanied by my willing husband, I followed her trail south to Montdevergues, the sprawling, walled institution now known as the Centre Hospitalier, a mental health facility serving the Vaucluse. The hospital’s gates were manned by a guard even less fluent in English than I am in French. Shrugging, he buzzed us in.
Much of the place – its layout, the barred windows and crumbling stucco – was recognizable from 19th-century photos. Its small church, all Gothic thrust and no warmth, overlooked the predictable mash-up of modern and old. Most unexpected was the unearthly silence: mid-morning on a Monday, not another person in sight except for someone who asked us what day it was.
Besides its quiet, the most memorable things about Montdevergues were the trees, the manicured gardens concealing whatever misery existed within. The only nod to Claudel’s suffering was a graceless, tusked sculpture commemorating the hospital’s famous patient – incongruous, for an artist who shaped beauty.
Claudel spent most of those 30 years sequestered in a pavilion on a hill behind the church. Owing to the building’s elevation and its bonelike whiteness, it looked more like a convent than a prison. Desperate to see where Claudel had spent her internment, for months before the trip I’d emailed the administration in vain. I’d come all this way to see it, yet now I couldn’t wait to escape.
I travelled to France twice more. The next year, I returned to visit Rodin’s other loves: the cathedrals at Chartres and Reims. Three years later, I went back to see the austere Champagne countryside of Claudel’s birth. Meanwhile, I’d been writing and rewriting my novel about her. The work felt akin to cutting tunnels like the region’s hand-hewn ones, used for racking bubbly. Until, that is, I reached the walled city of Poitiers, southwest of Paris. In its 11th-century church, I lit candles, then, in a driving rain, stumbled downhill to the Musée Sainte-Croix, which houses the world’s largest permanent collection of Claudels.
Bathed in gold light, far from Rodin’s taint, the works glowed from their vitrines, life’s joys and sorrows caught there. In this shrine to one who lived by her art, the sculptures trumped the darkness that shaped them. Here was the unassailable mark of genius I’d hoped to find.
Carol Bruneau is the author of six books. Based in Halifax, she teaches writing at NSCAD University. her novel of Camille Claudel, These Good Hands, is published by Cormorant Books.