Many people know the sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) through the 1988 film about her. “Camille Claudel” starred the tautly luminous Isabelle Adjani as Claudel and the magnetic, billowing Gerard Depardieu as Auguste Rodin, her mentor and lover. I watched it again this week. It’s a fine film. But when you know where the narrative is heading, every scene doubles as a portent of impending demise. The result is claustrophobic, the narrative equivalent of looking down a long, dark tunnel.
That’s not the way life works. It’s not how art works either.
The job of museum curators is to save art from the distortions of dramatized biography and return our attention to the work. So we should all be thankful for “Camille Claudel,” an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. By assembling most of Claudel’s best sculptures, the show transforms a dark tunnel into a beautiful and wide-open expanse.
Organized by the Art Institute’s Emerson Bowyer and Anne-Lise Desmas, a curator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (where the show will travel in the spring), this is the first U.S. show devoted exclusively to Claudel since a 1988 retrospective — coinciding with the French film’s release — at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.
The works, in terra cotta, plaster, bronze and stone, range from portrait busts to body fragments, full figures and multi-figure compositions. Many are powerfully expressive of deep emotion, charged with palpable eroticism and enlivened by vectors of thrusting energy. One or two (I’m thinking particularly of Claudel’s final, veiled version of “The Waltz”) feel intensely modern in their tilting, abstract audacity.
So there’s something restorative about this show. Finally, we get to see a superb sculptor on her own terms, apart from the legacy of Auguste Rodin, about whom the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi once said: “Nothing grows under the shadow of great trees.”
Brancusi, mind you, was lucky. He wasn’t in love with Rodin.
In the catalogue, Bowyer and Desmas lament the ways in which the “biographical miasma,” that is, “the sensationalist and melodramatic tales of doomed romance, victimhood, and madness” around Claudel, have “tended to obscure — or even excise — the sculptor’s art and agency.” The point is well-taken. But it’s not easy to tiptoe around the Claudel “miasma” without ignoring the truth.
The truth is that Claudel was a brilliant sculptor who, after a long, mutually beneficial (until it wasn’t) affair with Rodin, mentally unraveled. Showing signs of “systematized persecution delirium,” as her medical records described it, she began to destroy her works. In 1913, shortly after her father died, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. She remained hospitalized until her death, 30 years later.
The catalogue includes a chronology of Claudel’s life. It’s full of incident until 1913, after which it thins out dramatically. Some years are omitted entirely, presumably because there is no record of anything happening. There are many years when the only entry is “CC receives a visit from Paul.” Paul Claudel was Camille’s brother, a career diplomat who in 1926 became France’s ambassador to the United States. (In that role, 15 years after his sister’s hospitalization, he gave a speech at the opening of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum).
Claudel’s work was first seen in the United States 150 years ago at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Despite that, U.S. museums today own fewer than 10 works by her. Happily, this show was prompted by two recent acquisitions. In 2018, the Getty purchased Claudel’s powerful bronze “Crouching Torso of a Woman,” and in 2022 the Art Institute acquired “Young Roman,” a newly discovered polychrome portrait of Paul Claudel as a 13-year-old, in the style of a Renaissance bust.
Claudel took to sculpture in her teens, making busts of famous historical figures (Napoleon, Bismarck) and riffing on mythological and biblical themes (Daphnis and Chloe, David and Goliath). Female sculptors were rare but far from unknown in late-19th-century France. But sculpture, which required mastering difficult logistics, also depended on public commissions and a network of support. For women, opportunities were few and obstacles many.
Claudel moved to Paris to study at an academy in 1881. After an earlier encounter with Rodin, she began working in his studio in 1884. She was tremendously talented and very committed. It wasn’t long before she had evolved from being his student to someone the writer Mathias Morhardt described as a “wise and discerning collaborator” whom her teacher “[consulted] on everything.”
They had meanwhile fallen in love. In 1888, Claudel moved out of her parents’ home and into an apartment, with a small, spartan studio, rented for her by Rodin. Even while assisting him on his own projects — “The Gates of Hell,” “The Burghers of Calais” — she was able to make her own work.
Claudel modeled for at least two portraits by Rodin. She also posed as allegorical figures in more symbolic compositions, such as “Thought,” which depicts Claudel’s pensive, watchful head emerging from a heavy block of marble, its immensity pressing up into her delicate chin.
A few years into the relationship, Claudel flipped the dynamic. Her “Bust of Rodin” became her most famous and frequently exhibited portrait. Its impressionistic finish scatters the light, subtly dramatizing Rodin’s big, meaty brow, sunken eye sockets and boxer’s nose. His beard flows into the bust’s base, emphasizing his adamantine, almost geological presence.
Claudel and Rodin both reveled in youth, dance and eroticism. But they also depicted the wretchedness of old age, the obstacles impeding the flow of love and solace, and the connections between bodily discomfort and mental anguish.
Claudel worked for two years on “Sakuntala,” a large-scale marble of a male nude kneeling at the feet of a seated female nude who sags into his arms. Carving was usually outsourced to skilled artisans, who worked from the artist’s plaster original, but Claudel was a perfectionist and carved this entirely herself. Sakuntala was a figure out of the Hindu epic the “Mahabharata.” Claudel later revised the title to reflect a story out of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” The story, in other words, wasn’t the point: It was the tableau’s emotional expressiveness.
More ambitious work followed as Claudel tried to move away from her subordinate role in Rodin’s studio. She won praise for several works, including a small-scale portrait, “The Little Lady,” which depicted a 6-year-old girl she had met while staying at a country estate in the Loire Valley. The girl is said to have posed for more than 60 hours, which might account for the portrait’s intensity. Her face, with its staring, upturned eyes, was described by one critic at the time as “strangely knowing” and “already too alive, already too open to the mysteries of the universe.”
For years, being associated with Rodin, the greatest, most innovative sculptor of the late 19th century, helped Claudel’s career. Apart from all that she learned in his studio, it gave her access to a network of supportive collectors and critics. But as their relationship unraveled, their association became increasingly burdensome. Despite promises he made to Claudel, Rodin wouldn’t leave his long-term companion, the former seamstress and laundress Rose Beuret. Other issues arose, possibly including an abortion, and Claudel felt increasingly isolated.
At the turn of the century, shunning the rhetoric of symbolism, she made a series of small, enchanting domestic interiors that felt genuinely original. Each showed a single woman seated on a simple chair and leaning against the mantelpiece around a fireplace. Some were in marble, others in bronze; others still combined marble, alabaster and bronze.
By now, Claudel was desperate for money and trying to think of novelties that might appeal to a market. (One version of her fireplaces included a small red lightbulb to provide a red glow.) Venting her frustration, she wrote to her dealer, Eugène Blot, saying that sculpture was “better suited for ugly dupes and those with long beards than for a woman relatively well endowed by nature.” Claudel knew she had talent. She just didn’t know whether she could win the backing she needed.
The critic Octave Mirbeau, who said many nice things about Claudel, once described her as “a revolt of nature: a woman genius.” To be a creatively brilliant woman, Mirbeau was suggesting, was to be at odds with the natural way of things.
Statements like this, which reveal the depth of sexism with which female artists had to contend, have caused many to question the very idea of genius. The concept, they argue, is so tainted by biased assumptions, and so heavily associated with an outmoded philosophy — romanticism — that it is best abandoned.
I think there’s a better alternative. We can hold onto the concept — it’s useful — but dispense with its unwanted associations. We can admit that some romantic ideas (especially those associated with creativity) might not be as outdated as they appear. And we can acknowledge that the concept of genius has nothing to do with masculinity. Rather, it’s a quality possessed by certain very unusual human beings, as judged by other human beings.
Rodin was that kind of unusual human being. Was Claudel also?
It may not be the most interesting question to ask about her. But Mirbeau seemed to think so. Others called her a prodigy. This show makes a powerful case for her importance. If it’s hard to say more than that she was brilliant and full of promise, it’s because her career was cut short and she destroyed much of her work.
Frustrating as it is, not knowing quite how to appraise Claudel brings her closer to us. It shows that her story is, after all, important. And it reminds us that, whatever else it may be, genius is a quality that depends on opportunity. When that opportunity is thwarted, it has no chance at all.
Camille Claudel Through Feb. 19 at the Art Institute of Chicago. artic.edu.