Overshadowed by Rodin, but his lover wins acclaim at last

Camille Claudel, tragic model and muse, gets the recognition she sought as a great sculptor

France is finally recognising the talent of the 19th-century sculptor Camille Claudel with the first national museum dedicated to her. It opens next month in Nogent-sur-Seine, 100km south-east of Paris, partly funded with profits generated by the town’s nuclear energy plant.

Displays of her sculptures will reflect her significance as an artist, but they also tell a tragic story. Claudel was a studio assistant to Auguste Rodin, the sculptor of The Kiss and The Thinker. He fell in love with her almost immediately, admiring her artistic talent. In a passionate affair, she was his mistress, his model and his muse for 10 years.

But their relationship crumbled and she struggled to find recognition as an artist in her own right. Eventually, obsessed with Rodin, she descended into madness. For almost a century, she was largely ignored by art history, overshadowed by her confinement in a mental institution for the last 30 years of her life. She never sculpted again and had virtually no visitors. She died in 1943, aged 78 and was buried in a common grave.

Claudel destroyed much of her art, but about 90 works survive. Now the Camille Claudel museum will show about half of them – the world’s biggest collection. Such recognition is timely as the centenary of Rodin’s death in 1917 is being marked by museums across France, including the Grand Palais in Paris. The Claudel museum, which opens on 26 March, has been built around the 18th-century house in which she grew up. Cécile Bertran, the museum’s curator, described Claudel as a “very important” artist. Even in her short career, there was “a huge development” from naturalistic to expressionist work, she said.

Claudel showed astonishing promise from a young age, first working with local clay. Aged just 19, she became Rodin’s assistant. He was fascinated by her “fiery temperament and extraordinary talent”, as well as admiring “her mind and judgment”, Bertran said.

She is thought to have worked on details of figures for some of Rodin’s masterpieces, including The Gates of Hell. She also exhibited her own works and several were bought by French museums. Torso of a Standing Woman shows Rodin’s influence in the expressive depiction of the human body, but she in turn had some influence over Rodin, as seen in her Young Girl with a Sheaf, which was created before Rodin’s Galatea. The heads of The Slave and Laughing Man were signed by Rodin when they were cast in bronze, but were modelled by Claudel.

“Comparing Eternal Spring and The Eternal Idol, both by Rodin, and Sakountala and Abandonment, both by Claudel, the joint theme of the embracing couple shows a shared inspiration, but differing emotions,” Bertran said. “The energy of an imperious gesture in Rodin’s works implies male domination, while the balance of suspended gestures in Claudel’s work suggests tenderness.”

Claudel inspired Rodin to model several portraits, including Camille Claudel with Short Hair. She in turn depicted him in The Bust of Rodin. But the relationship deteriorated and, in 1886, she jealously demanded an extraordinary “contract” with pledges that he would not accept any other pupils and that he would marry her. Rodin signed it, but his promises were never honoured. He had another woman in his life and Claudel needed to escape his shadow, frustrated at being labelled a Rodin follower.

Although Rodin continued to back her, approaching critics and institutions on her behalf, she became embittered by her inability to secure commissions from the French state. She eventually became a recluse, paranoid that she was being persecuted by “Rodin’s gang”. Eventually she was committed to an institution by her family. She was 48.

Claudel’s sculptures have since sold for millions of pounds at auction. She has also been immortalised in two major films, portrayed by Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Adjani. Another film, Rodin, will be released this year. Starring Vincent Lindon in the title role and Izïa Higelin as Claudel, it tells the story of their relationship, as well as Rodin’s other affairs.

Bertran said: “At a time when women artists of the past are finally starting to be researched and highlighted, this opening puts the work of Claudel firmly alongside that of her peers, and pays tribute to her unique genius.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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