In New Exhibition, Curators Fashion a New Story for Sculptor Camille Claudel that Centers Her Prodigious Talent

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To look upon Camille Claudel’s Torso of a Crouching Woman is to be shocked by it. Though the figure lacks a head, arms, and left knee, she is stolidly centered. The burnished bronze figure writhes, pulling the skin and tendons taut across the delicate bones of her back. The attenuated surface, animated by the innumerable minuscule movements required to maintain the figure’s equilibrium, trembles with life. The absence of the left knee, lower thigh, and upper shin exposes the figure’s breasts and abdomen; her bottom rests on the back of a sudden ankle. Despite the violence of the cleaved limbs, the sculpture radiates tenderness.

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The work, one of 58 in the Getty Center’s recently opened exhibition on Claudel, transcends its fragmentary parts. After all, what woman has not been broken apart and yet endured? The figure’s plight and posture inevitably recall the anguish and desperation experienced by the artist as a 19th century woman determined to transcend the limitations of her time.

Claudel’s life story has often superseded her work. The best-known parts were both astonishing and tragic: her tumultuous relationship with her mentor, Auguste Rodin, who was both twenty-four years her senior and already a world-renowned sculptor, and her decades-long confinement in a mental hospital until her death. And much has been written about Claudel’s fraught familial relations and the immense mental and physical strain that she endured in order to make art at a time when women were primarily considered domestic property. However, curators Anne-Lise Desmas at the Getty Center and Emerson Bowyer at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the show initiated, furnish Claudel with a new story, deftly resurrecting the arc of her life and the revelation of her creative output.

The Getty show spans her oeuvre, from early portraits of her beloved brother to the bronze commissioned by the French state just before her internment, Wounded Niobid. In each, one can see both her prodigious natural facility and the distillation of her singular vision after years of self-discipline and study. From an early age, Claudel displayed an aptitude for sculpture and an intuitive feeling for light and shade. At 17, she was accepted to the Académie Colarossi–one of the few French art institutions to admit women–and by 20, was the principal assistant at Rodin’s rue de l’Université studio. 

Torso of a Crouching Woman; Camille Claudel (French, 1864 - 1943); France; model about 1884–1885; cast by 1913; Bronze; 35 × 27 × 26 cm (13 3/4 × 10 5/8 × 10 1/4 in.); 2018.32; No Copyright - United States (https://rightsstatements.org/vocab/NoC-US/1.0/)

Torso of a Crouching Woman, model about 1884–1885; cast by 1913, Camille Claudel. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

To love Rodin’s exquisite hands is to love Claudel’s, both literally and metaphorically. Not only did Rodin model Claudel’s hands in many works, she herself fashioned many of the hands, feet, and heads included in some of his most monumental commissions, like The Gates of Hell, ostensibly a scene from Dante’s Inferno and The Burghers of Calais, a commemoration of French heroism. At the Getty, a striking selection of disembodied appendages and miniature heads demonstrate her anatomical acuity and an uncanny ability to imbue inanimate material with life. This ability is never more striking or haunting than in Study of Left Hand, a 10-inch black-bronze hand, its curved index finger hovering above the knuckles poised to extend toward the unassuming viewer an accusatory point. One can hardly imagine the innumerable times that Claudel, in acquiescence or resistance to her fate, held out her hands. She offers them again now. 

Early in her career, Claudel shaped her most famous portrait, that of Rodin. That work, Bust of Rodin is presented in the center of the second gallery side-by-side with his rendering of her providing ample insight into their fraught dynamic. The formidable bronze bust depicts Rodin in the fullness of life: furrowed brows, deep-set eyes, and a cascading beard. The work, bearing the force of the man’s thoughts and powers of perception, emanates a gravity all its own. To the right in Thought, Claudel’s downcast face emerges from a rough-hewn pillar of white marble; he portrays her neck-less, with closed eyes and hair hidden beneath a swath of cloth. Inchoate and entombed in stone, the portrait portends the institution that would paralyze the artist for the last 30 years of her life. 

Study of Left Hand, about 1889, Camille Claudel, Xavier Eekhout Collection. Courtesy of Galerie Malaquais, Paris

The additional Rodin sculptures in the exhibition throw the discrepancies between their entwined visions into stark relief. Where Rodin’s figures are delicate and restrained, Claudel’s are forceful, spontaneous, and vulnerable. Like the radical decision to sever the knee but retain the crouching woman’s foot in Torso of a Crouching Woman, Claudel strives toward the emotional heart of experience, engaging with higher and higher registers of meaning. Her despair, exaltation, and terror reside so near the sculpted surface that the sculptures quiver and hum with life. Where her male counterparts privileged the cerebral to the corporeal, Claudel remained faithful to her models and subjects. This is most evident in Sakuntala, later titled The Abandonment, where a male figure collapses to his knees, and a woman unwittingly abandons her body to his embrace. Far from a myth remade, the figures are not emblematic but embodied, animated by the grace and gravity of carnal desire. 

At eight-feet tall and over 300 pounds, The Waltz (With Veils) astounds in the adjacent gallery. In the work, the bronze figures are captured mid-dance, arms embracing, legs intertwining, appearing light and lithe as a bolt of silk swept skyward. Poised between the last rotation and the next, the spinning couple imagines a state of ongoing becoming as the two fuse into one. On an adjacent plaform rest four smaller iterations of The Waltz that together demonstrate the complete rotation,  resembling the frames of an Eadweard Muybridge motion study sequence vivant. The fourth in the sequence portrays a woman, still swaddled by veils but free from a man’s embrace. Alone, she throws her arms wide and extends her body along an elegant ascendent diagonal as if to claim the greatest possible space. Beneath her left foot, she halts the ever-turning wheel of fate.

The Waltz (Allioli), about 1900, Camille Claudel, Private collection. Musée Yves Brayer

The swirling baroque veils that threaten to subsume the dancing figures in The Waltz were not part of the original composition but were added to appease the French government, who found the nude pas de deux too scandalous for a sculpture by a female artist. The mass of drapery then neatly represents the stultifying social conventions dictating modesty, sexual repression, and the conflation of purity with value that entrapped women’s bodies at the time. And yet, time and again, Claudel transformed the constraints placed upon her life and her craft even as she pressed against them. In this way, the diaphanous veils double as manifestations of her intractable creative vision and evidence of her liberated consciousness transcending the conditions of her material reality.

In the subsequent gallery, veils trail from a mythical female figure ferrying a man through old age toward death in the elegiac masterpiece Age of Maturity. The three-figure composition of a young woman on her knees, reaching toward a man as he turns into the embrace of an older woman, demonstrates Claudel’s signature suffusion of myth and allegory with the rhythm of the aching and real (and, often, autobiographical). Her countenance shines from the face of the pleading woman in the same way that it winks from the snake-enwreathed head dangling from the hero’s hand in Perseus and the Gorgon. 

If not her likeness, Claudel bequeathed the full freight of her sensual and emotional cognizance to her compositions. More than the agony in Age of Maturity or the ecstasy of The Waltz, the numinous white marble face of The Little Lady stops my heart. The ethereal young girl with a broad forehead, full cheeks, and hallucinatory eyes sees you as clearly as you see her. One does not need to know that Claudel started the sculpture while recovering from an aborted pregnancy by Rodin to appreciate the miraculous monument to what could have been. But to know is to witness stone turn to flesh.

“There is always something missing that torments me,” Claudel once wrote in a letter. I can’t help but think that the lack she perceived was merely the absence of a thrumming heartbeat, having given everything but to the conception of her art.

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