HOW DOES ONE approach the work and life of a woman artist?

HOW DOES ONE approach the work and life of a woman artist? The way I perceive Camille Claudel’s work and life is through my own identity, gender, race, culture. As a French woman, sculptor, discovering Camille Claudel was exciting, but it also made me angry that I had been denied the knowledge of her existence.

Because of the autobiographical content of Camille Claudel’s work, it is difficult to speak of the professional without the personal. Her creativity and professional career were dramatically stopped, but one should not fall into the trap of writing a ‘sentimental’ story, presenting her as a victim. Camille Claudel should be remembered for her work and her contribution to sculpture. To isolate Claudel from her time, to single her out of her era would be a mistake and would counteract the efforts of many feminist art historians.

There was a great explosion of women sculptors in 19th-century Europe. With economic and social changes, educated middle-class women could stay single, financially independent and pursue careers. In 19th-century France, sculptures were popular. Public sculptures were erected everywhere reflecting the successive republics, empire and monarchies. Women still had no access to ‘high art’ education. To enter the sculpture profession they had to study under a private tutor. But being a woman sculptor was not a novelty and with the development of sculptural techniques women could physically take on the career of sculptor. Like men sculptors they could employ technicians, assistants, masons, carvers, casters.

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It was only in 1889 that a class for women was opened at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts thanks to a successful campaign by the sculptor Madame Bertaux. In 1897 women students and artists could attend other classes there. In 1900 they could enter the studios and in 1903 they could compete for the Prix de Rome.

Camille Claudel was from a provincial bourgeois family. She had a younger sister, Louise, and brother Paul, who became a well-known writer and diplomat. Her mother never showed much love toward Camille. Later she rejected her daughter’s ‘free life-style’. Her father, surprisingly for a provincial civil servant was very supportive towards her artistic development. He encouraged Paul’s literary career too. Camille and Paul stayed very close, sharing their enthusiasm and developing their creative abilities.

Camille used the local clay of Champagne for modelling her first sculptures. The sculptor Alfred Boucher who visited the family commented on her work, suprised by her astonishing promise. However it is difficult to assess how much he had to do with her artistic growth.

At 17, she had already decided to be a sculptor. The Claudel family moved to Paris. Camille joined the Academie Colarossi and rented her first studio, sharing with Jessie Lipscomb and two other young English women sculptors. At 20, she joined Rodin’s studio, as assistant then collaborator and model. They became lovers. Rodin was 40, he had a son of 21 and a long-standing common-law wife Rose Beuret.

Camille Claudel was already an accomplished sculptor when she joined Rodin’s studio. There she strengthened her style and matured. Her sensibility and handling of the medium and subjects happened to go in the same direction as Rodin’s. Working in his studio encouraged her development. Rodin paid her for her work on his sculptures. Her marble carving was known to be of high quality. For nine years Rodin and Claudel worked together in the same studios, on similar themes; one often finds echoes of poses, themes in each other’s work. Claudel’s work is physically present in Rodin’s. She modelled in clay many hands, feet and torsos of some of his best known sculptures, for example La Porte de L’Enfer.

At 24 she moved out of her parents’ home. With Rodin she met politicians, artists, art critics who started noticing her work. She visited museums, exhibitions, discovered Japanese art and explored unfamiliar materials like onyx. The Claudel-Rodin relationship lasted 14 years. She broke their relationship twice: in 1894 and 1898. Picturing an evil and exploitative Rodin versus a vulnerable and over-sensitive Claudel would be simplistic and would not do justice to Claudel’s strong-minded personality. One of Camille Claudel’s biographers, Reine-Marie Paris, suggested that Claudel’s feelings toward Rodin were within reason and not outrageous. One must not forget that professionally she occupied a favourable position near Rodin and that she was ambitious and wanted to succeed. But she was in a social pretence. Rose Beuret and the Claudel family were not aware, for a long time, of her relationship with Rodin. She became impatient towards Rodin, who did not want to leave Rose. Her impatience, angry but lucid, was expressed in a series of drawings she did of Rodin and Beuret in 1894.

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In 1893 she left Rodin’s studio and rented her own. She tried to break away from Rodin’s sculptural approach. It was a long process. With work like La Valse (1891-1905), Clotho (1893-1897), L’Age Mur (1894-1900), one sees the beginning of her autonomous practice. She worked on a small scale. Her figures were dressed or draped, in opposition to Rodin’s obsession with nudity. Her naked figures meant tenderness, vulnerability. Because of their small scale and autobiographical connotation, the viewer experiences the intimacy of the work. She gave her sculptures classical, allegorical titles but they referred to the personal. This is the case for L’Age Mur or La Destinee or Le Chemin de la Vie (1894-1900 plaster, 1899-1913 bronze). There, the allegory of the mature man between old age and youth is only a vehicle to portray Rodin between Rose Beuret and Camille Claudel. This sculpture should have been her first state commission. But for no reason the order was cancelled, she was never paid for her expenses. Did the French art establishment try to protect its ‘famous sculptor’ from the public gaze?

After her definite separation from Rodin, Claudel started to isolate herself. She became poorer although she still received financial help from her father and brother. Her debts increased. She could have developed her career as a successful portraitist of high society but she had greater expectations from herself. She became frustrated, disillusion grew, her career was slow while Rodin was enjoying success and glory. She wanted and needed official commissions. They never really came. The few she obtained had financial, emotional negative results. But this is not to say that she was not known. She exhibited regularly at various Salons, and in 1905 she joined the Eugene Blot Gallery, which was to become one of the best in Paris. Claudel exhibited abroad, in Geneva, Rome, and possibly New York. She was often mentioned by the ‘great’ art critics of the day. Their writing sadly is a caricature, with a strong tendency to see her as a ‘student’ of Rodin. Only two writers (apart from Reine-Marie Paris) have succeeded in showing the real Claudel: Paul her brother, and Mathias Morhardt, art critic and friend of the artist.

Gradually her impatience and frustration started to influence the great admiration she had toward Rodin. She became obsessed by the idea that Rodin was plotting against her, stealing her ideas, work. She became a paranoiac.

But she still made sculptures like the heads Aurore (1900, marble), La Fortune (1900-1904, bronze) and La Niobide Blessee (1906-1907, plaster and bronze). La Niobide Blessee is her second state commission. She did get paid, with delay. The bronze was found again in the early 1980s by Anne Riviere (one of Claudel’s biographers). It was in the undergrowth of the neglected park of Toulon Prefecture Maritime. The organisers of Camille Claudel’s exhibition in 1984 (Musee Rodin, Paris and Musee Sainte-Croix, Poitiers) found it difficult to obtain the sculpture. It was finally exhibited at Poitiers. It seemed the Prefecture Maritime was embarrassed about its condition; they even tried to clean it, and made it worse. The history of La Niobide Blessee reflects its maker’s fate. It is the final element of a series of sculptures on the man-woman-couple-relationship-trust-love theme, which started with La Sakuntala (1888), continuing with L’Abandon and Vertumne et Pommone (1905).

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From 1905, she ritually destroyed her work. She had become a recluse. Her brother, living abroad could rarely visit her, or was she becoming a social embarrassment? In March 1913 Camille Claudel was taken by force to the asylum of Ville Evrard. A year later she was transferred to the asylum of Montdeverges near Avignon where she remained ‘prisoner’ until her death, 30 years later in 1943. No one there knew that she had been a great sculptor. Paul Claudel and Jessie Lipscomb were the only visitors.

The papers to authorise her confinement were signed by her mother. Her brother participated in the wording of the document. The certificate said that she suffered from serious intellectual disorder, persecution complex, paranoiac psychosis. Although she had not seen Rodin since 1898 she believed that he was ‘after her’. At the asylum she demanded that she cook her own food for fear of being poisoned. After Rodin’s death in 1917 she transferred her fixation onto her mother.

Camille Claudel was not a violent patient, she was not dangerous and never required special treatment. In the letters she wrote from the asylum, she kept demanding her release, at the beginning strongly then more calmly, but without giving up. In 1942 her physical health deteriorated. Her brother managed to visit her before she died on 19 October 1943. Although there had been some attempt to secure her release at the beginning of her ‘imprisonment’ by fellow artists, including Rodin, she died in the asylum. Like La Niobide Blessee caught in the undergrowth of la Prefecture Maritime Camille Claudel was forgotten. Let us rediscover her work and celebrate a great sculptor.

Along the lines of resistance vision and difference

With its proud, outwardly ‘feminist’ presence in a public ‘mainstream’ gallery and because of the variety of concerns and people it tries to address, ‘Along the Lines of Resistance. An exhibition of Contemporary Feminist Art’ at the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley, takes a stand against the apathy of post this-and-that and answers questions about the effectiveness/necessity of a feminist intervention asked by feminists who believe in greater weight being given ‘… to the demands of an interested … audience of women as it already exists’ (W.A.S.L. Journal No. 26, p.23).

From my position as a white, 25 year old university-educated woman in the process of receiving a not-so-traditional ‘fine art’ training, I acknowledge that there were some meanings in these works concerning issues of race, class, gender and sexuality which were more open to me than others.

The work I read most easily was Girls in a Line at the Swimming Baths, a painting by Kathryn Ensall. The dulled colours and trapping compositional device had the effect of making me relive the cornered and uneasy feelings I had at adolescence in the same situation–not in the least because of the feeling of being watched. But I felt there was a problem in the use of the female body, which at best in this context points out a place where difference between male and female is organised, but at worst may reinforce the difference and not change anything.

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Mona Hatoum’s video work gave me a sense of distance and desolation, with its dialogue and grid of extracts of letters between herself and her mother which acted as a barrier between the viewer and the film of a woman behind. The use of the female body, even in this very specific context, is still problematic.

Rachael Field’s paintings didn’t really articulate, for me, anything about what it must feel like to be a lesbian. The wooden window frame surrounding the painting Window Box which was supposed to enhance ‘… the idea of viewer as voyeur’ (exhibition catalogue), didn’t. And I wasn’t sure what the two figures inside were doing, or if they were women. Was I missing the point?

Other work succeeded in varying degrees in articulating something to me. I would have liked to have seen some sort of Visitors Book. I came away feeling that it was important that this sort of intervention continued because it shows the struggle to represent different realities and that through such interventions people might eventually realise the relationships between image and text and power and ideology.

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This is where books like ‘Vision and Difference’ are important. The coherence of theory in such a book does not mean a ‘… closure in order to achieve a specific aim’ (Issue No. 26) which excludes differences of opinion; rather it opens up new channels of communication and exposes others in a critical way. ‘Vision and Difference’ does not only use but expands and criticises foreign and male ideas.Just because they’re male and foreign and seem inaccessible doesn’t mean we should naively ignore them and hope they’ll go away because they won’t. These ideas aren’t just fashionable, they’re the ones which have made up and continue to make up ideologies, and which we can use to challenge dominant ideologies, of which art is a part.

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The majority of women aren’t versed in these things: they’re well immersed in the dominant ideology, though, whether they like it or not and many are aware of its oppressiveness and contradictions. I’m glad that there are some women who use their education to articulate those contradictions, even if it does mean hard work trying to understand.

There’s a long way to go, and as Griselda Pollock said in her letter ‘Framing Feminism’ (Issue No.26), there isn’t much alternative. Nothing will change by retreating to some sort of romantic island of women artists. The real challenge/problem is, after trying to understand all this knowledge, how to use it as cultural practitioners who also have to make a living.