Camille Claudel: Crushed under Rodin's Feet of Clay

Last year, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, presented a show of 19th-century French sculptor Auguste Rodin's works. The magnitude of the pieces, the muscles in the hands and feet, the magnificent yearning for flight in the figures, marked the spirit of the show. Nevertheless, the exhibit was tragic. The works seemed to be very much about humanity's inevitable failure to free itself of clay feet and actually take flight. We try though we know we will fail; this is our story. I saw the show twice, and twice I left it with an ache and felt happy to be outside with the Calder sculpture that seems to say, if we're earthbound, at least the sky is blue and bright.

Caught in the tension between the heaven and earth of Rodin's work was the 19th-century French sculptor Camille Claudel, who surrendered her life to Rodin, though she is merely a footnote in the history of art. in the 1988 movie Camille Claudel, Claudel's (Isabelle Adjani) life as an artist begins and ends with August Rodin's (Gerard Depardieu) feet of clay. His muse for 15 years, Claudel is an artist in her own right, a sculptor so driven to create that she visits construction sites at night in search of clay for her work. She seeks the attention of the great sculptor of The Thinker, The Kiss, and The Gates of Hell that she might further her talents and her career.

She becomes for Rodin a raw material to be squeezed, molded, and shaped according to his will. He drains his inspiration of all vitality, using her body for his own pleasure and artistic pursuits, sculpting her likeness and presenting it nude for all of Paris to see, and never stopping to consider her needs, her being, her right to create as a right equal to his own. Better for him that she be second, that her contributions to his masterworks be anonymous, that the glory and prestige be his. In Rodin's mind, she should be content to ride along on his coattails with the other ladies who served his purposes.

Claudel has surrendered her spirit to Rodin, and he tramples it. Cast aside, she destroys herself with alcohol, public outbursts of rage, and refusing her family's help. She never recovers from his rejection but instead grows paranoid and neurotic, sure that Rodin is out to destroy her.

Camille Claudel is about the death--perhaps the murder--of a tender soul in the hands of an egocentric, self-serving artist who never conceives that any other artist could be as good as himself. He craves--depends upon--her tenderness, her clear vision, her openness to him. Through her, he gives wings to his colossal sculptures that would otherwise be rooted to the earth. Her influence infuses them with a spirit that presses every muscle into movement toward flight. Rodin's beings never lose their feet of clay; they never stop being creations of the earth; their power is in the reaching, in the attempt.

Were the seeds of insanity present in Camille before she met Rodin? I don't think so. Her yearning that he sign her clay foot--a motif that captures the tragedy of her soul--shows how desperately she sought to share her soul to him. She is tragic because she never thought for a minute that Rodin could, or would, take all she had without returning her gift in kind.

Can an artist be a voyeur? Of course. In this case, Rodin is like Goldilocks, trying on the lives of each of the bears until she finds the one whose things suit her best. Along the way, she trashes the house and robs the family of its dinner, but this doesn't disturb her sleep as she tries the beds for a nap. Unlike Camille Claudel, they claw their lives back.

It's an old story: our golden-haired boys and girls can be ruthless--perhaps must be--as they create our better selves in works of art and hand it back to us.

Comments

  1. Thanks. How's it going with the book?

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  2. Anonymous9:58 PM

    The more movies we watch about the supposedly great artists, the more we learn about the sides of them that weren't as bright as their work. It;s ironic. You would think a genius would be confident and self-assured and secure. Yet that's not proving to be quite the opposite.

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  3. I think genius is not some exotic, separate thing. Seems to me it's about seeing the connection between things and people. Rodin was also a PR master. He devised a machine to mass produce his works. Rodin was very much about Rodin.

    As a PR writer and as a researcher, I have worked with artists and orators who deliver messages of hope and healing and they share this: a belief that God has ordained them to lord it over the rest of us. They never really get that they're not superhuman but human. It's horrible to realize that some great art is the produce of some sacrifice that even the artist doesn't understand.

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  4. Anonymous5:47 AM

    You're tagged with a Green Chrissie Meme

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  5. Of course, even artists are humans. They too have shortcomings, problems, issues, etc. More so, I believe that artists are predisposed to mess up their as well as others' lives. After getting to know a few artists, myself, I have started turning my blind eye towards their idiosyncracies and rather dwell on their creations. That helps, keeps me from unwittingly getting dragged into their mess.

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  6. This is true. Perhaps in some ways, artists are magnified versions of ordinary people--they create bigger and better and they destroy on a greater scale. You have a healthy attitude. I'm taking note!

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