I was moved this week to come across one of history’s forgotten: Camille Claudel. Currently showing in cinemas here in the UK, “Camille Claudel 1915” is a snapshot of her life in that year, directed by Bruno Dumont and starring Juliette Binoche as the titular heroine. I had never heard of her before I came across a small mention about this film, though there is also another film about her life, released in 1988.
Her story is hauntingly tragic, but also, I think, inspiring. When I looked her up, the strong independent face in the photograph at the top of this post stared back at me, with something wild and defiant in it and I felt drawn to her immediately.
Born in 1864, she was the eldest of three children, descended from merchants and clergymen. Her younger brother, the middle child, Paul, went on to become a famous, and somewhat controversial, poet and writer, with a strong Catholic sentiment bordering on the fanatical.
Encouraged by her father, she studied art at Academie Colarossi, and went on to rent a workshop with other female artists in 1882. Her teacher, Alfred Boucher, remained her mentor, and when he passed that mantle onto Auguste Rodin, Camille went on to become his assistant and muse, at age 19.
Rodin’s name is very well known, but her influence on him and his work is less famous. She was his muse and his lover, though he was 25 years her senior, inspiring him to push the boundaries of what was considered socially acceptable in sculpture. The Waltz, her sculpture which shows two naked figures, was ahead of it’s time and drew her a great deal of censure for it’s depiction of the almost touching unclad bodies. She almost couldn’t have it cast, as no one would allow the finance to be released for this daring work by a woman. Rodin’s work changed when she starting working with him, clearly displaying her influence, art critics claim, to the extent that some work originally attributed to him has later been shown to be Camille’s. Some pieces, it has been claimed, clearly show the work of two pairs of hands.
However, as much as Camille loved Auguste, he was already in a relationship with Rose Beuret, and was not inclined to leave her, though he promises to do so kept Camille by his side for 15 years.
Camille was in her mid thirties when the relationship ended for good, in 1905. The experience seemed to break her, and she set to smashing a lot of her works. I can only imagine what it must have been like to live in a time when being an unmarried woman who had been in a sexual relationship would have been a huge stigma, let alone being a female artist in time when the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts would not recognise you. She was a daring, intelligent woman with a wildly creative mind, unafraid to forge her own path and possessing more talent than most people around her. Losing someone who admired and believed in her, whom she had worked with and held on to for 15 years must have been crushing. However, her claims that Rodin was out to get her by stealing her work and trying to poison her show how far her break down had gone.
Her father, who appears to have been her constant support, both financially and emotionally, died in 1913. Her family did not inform her, but rather, 8 days after his death, had her committed to an asylum for the mentally ill. These institutions at the time were little more than prisons, and the treatments for patients can only be wondered at today. In spite of this, and though sometimes labelled as a schizophrenic, doctors found that Camille recovered, and showed little signs of her mental distress, and none at all when she was allowed to create artworks. Throughout her time there, doctors frequently urged her family to take her home, as she did not need to be kept in an asylum, but her family ignored their requests, and left her there for 30 years til her death in 1943. During that time, her mother never visited her, preferring to forget her daughter. Her sister visited but once, in 1929, and her brother, though he chose to see her seven times those thirty years, spoke about her only in the past tense.
Her work is beautiful and moving, and her influence on Rodin undeniable. When I read her story, I felt sorry for the loss of the works she destroyed, and yet felt the desperate humanity of the gesture of wanting to destroy something that reminds you of someone in the wake of a bad break up. I was amazed by the power of this young woman, who could fly in the face of convention and carry on a relationship unmarried and create such moving works of art about subjects that were not considered acceptable, inspiring one of the most famous sculptors. How had I not heard of her?
And how had her remaining family been able to lock her away? What provoked that? Was it religious piety, or jealousy of her having her fathers unshakable support? Is that why they couldn’t commit her before his death? Or were they silencing another outspoken and challenging woman? Either way, her story has stayed with me since I heard it.