Burying our heads in one another’s shoulders, tears welling in our eyes on the verge of falling, we were torn by the vehement love affair and ironically beautiful sculptures before us.[sign2]
As we made our way through each gallery of the exhibition, their story became clearer. It was a chronological stepping stone into the lives, creative processes, influences and wild romance of two of the greatest sculptors of all time: Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin.
Claudel and Rodin are reminders that passion, torment and triangular love affairs are factors of remarkable artwork, in this case, incredible sculptures. The Claudel-Rodin \”Fateful Encounter\” exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) nearly had my friend and me weeping.
Rodin, an ethereal nineteenth-century French sculptor most famous for “The Thinker,” was compared to Michelangelo and could rank as one of the greatest artists the world has ever known. Claudel and Rodin had a dramatic love affair that was nothing short of heart wrenching, but through the fog of broken hearts and shattered lives came a mastery of the arts.
An Artist and a Young Muse
Rodin and Claudel were compared to other classic lovers like Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra, and the DIA brochure agrees. It is not always obvious, either, whether Rodin and Claudel would have produced the same quality artwork had they not had the other’s influence.
The relationship began in 1883 when Claudel met Rodin. He taught sculpture to her, as well as to her friends. The following year, Claudel became Rodin’s muse and he used her as inspiration for his art. She was his model, his confidant and soon his lover. \”Her career had a meteoric rise and fall, while Rodin’s work increasingly gained prestige and fame, elevating him to a celebrated artist by the time of his death,\” said Brittany Gersh, curatorial and exhibition assistant of European sculpture and decorative arts at the DIA.
But the only thing standing in the way of their destined romance was Rodin’s 20-year lover, Rose Beuret. The Shakespearan, melodramatic affair was a recipe for disaster from the start. Claudel’s family, aristocrats with high standards, disapproved of her involvement with the art world, especially with an older man and vigorous artisan like Rodin. In 1892, Claudel put an end to the intimate side of their relationship, although the two still regularly saw each other until 1898. Throughout their stormy, tumultuous relationship, Rodin’s long-term lover, Beuret, was still very much a part of the complicated love triangle. Through letters displayed among the many galleries at the DIA, Rodin confessed his adoration and unrelenting passion for Claudel, making promises to leave Beuret for her so he and Claudel could finally marry.
\”As Ruth Butler explained in the lecture she gave at the DIA, Rodin was strongly influenced by the women in his life: his sister, and two closest friends and lovers, Camille and Rose Beuret,\” said Gersh. [thinker2]And though Rodin’s letters seemed heartfelt and sincere, reading through the translated versions, I slowly and then suddenly felt there was a hidden deceit: something buried under his words and letters didn\’t seem right. Whether it was the somber tone of the English-accented tour guide\’s voice that provided insight into their chaotic love affair, or just my instincts chiming in, I could feel disaster on the brink of eruption.
Rodin’s promises soon turned to empty statements as Claudel lost faith in him and he justified her skepticism by staying with Beuret, while still vying for Claudel’s love. Claudel was a headstrong artist that never married, and her “disregard for social conventions was revolutionary in redefining the role of women in the art world as well as in French society,” said Gersh.
Passion and Influence
As I walked around the magnificent sculptures the masters formed, I couldn\’t help but question whether they would have flourished creatively if they hadn’t had each other. Phylis Floyd, art and art history professor, thinks the two had a definite influence on one another.
“They shared a mutual exchange of creative juices,” said Floyd, “in more than one way.” The three-sided love affair is reflected in Claudel’s artwork, and it appears her feelings of heartbreak are demonstrative through her sculpture.
Reflected through the pair\’s sculptures is the passion they shared, both in their dueling sculptures of one another and in Rodin’s later works.
\”In many of their pieces, passion, love, tenderness, and jealousy prevail as dominant themes,\” said Gersh. \”Claudel’s The Waltz and Rodin’s I Am Beautiful, for example, are two pieces that portray two lovers with such passion that it would be negligent to assume that their love for each other did not influence their artwork.\”
“Rodin left his collection of art to the state, and in his will he said he wanted to the money to be used to buy Claudel’s artwork so that they could be exhibited together,” said Floyd.
Claudel, however, was not one to resign to the roles of only muse and female counterpart. “She ignored the social judgments of the time and carved and sculpted her own pieces — generally considered a man’s job because of the physical strength it took,” said Gersh.
But she was never able to remove herself completely from Rodin’s shadow, and her career suffered as a result, while Rodin’s flourished.
Fallen Sculptress and Thriving Sculptor
As if their love affair was not melancholic enough, Claudel’s career plummeted in the wake of Rodin’s. Elizabeth Whiting, curator of education at MSU’s Kresge Art Museum, emphasized how Claudel was caught behind the shadow of Rodin, and how she is liberated now through the exhibit. \”Claudel, emerging from the shadows of Rodin, was an important figure in her own right,” said Whiting. “Seeing the exhibit is a gratifying and rewarding experience in terms of both artists.”
But in her time, Claudel was unsuccessful at finding fame and her failed romance with Rodin could have been what broke her. From 1905 onward, Claudel’s behavior grew outwardly deranged. She started destroying her statues, disappearing for long periods of time and acting overly paranoid. In one particular gallery at the DIA, a narrator said Claudel had grown into a habit of destroying her own sculptures and then claimed Rodin had stolen and destroyed her pieces in the middle of the night. On March 10, 1913, Claudel was admitted to the psychiatric hospital of Ville-Evrard. Until her death in 1943, Claudel was trapped in mental institutions and, to art critics’ and historians’ dismay, sculpted nothing.
Rodin continued sculpting despite cutting ties with Claudel, and in 1903, he had his most important works enlarged to monumental dimensions. During his last years, specifically in 1915, Rodin traveled to Rome where he sculpted a bust of Pope Benedict XV, and The Burghers of Calais was unveiled officially in London without a ceremony, according to the official Web site of a museum which houses Rodin’s work in Paris, appropriately called the Musee Rodin.
In early 1917, Rodin finally married his long-time love, Rose, who died a mere two weeks after their wedding. Rodin died later that same year, on November 17.
Their works are best viewed as a creative amalgam of influences: they influenced each other in life and art. Claudel’s “incredible facility with [sculpting] hands,” was highly influential to Rodin’s work. “He stole a hand from one of her sculptures and it was missing until he finally admitted that he had stolen it to study,” said Floyd. “Her adeptness for sculpting emotion into hands had a profound effect on Rodin, and is reflected in his popular masterpiece, Burghers of Calais.”
Through Claudel’s accomplished talent of the human form, she had the ability to evoke certain expressions and emotion that affected Rodin’s sculptures. “They had a shared contribution: she helped Rodin to work toward symbolism, which was what her work was about,” said Floyd. “The way she worked captured the profundity of human emotions and passion.”
The very idea that a 19-year-old Claudel had a chance to work with a 43-year-old budding sculptor most likely had an intense impact on her work. But just as each artist gave their influential art to later generations, they also strongly influenced their own time.
\”In literal terms of their art, the technical mastery of the sculptures, the chosen subject matter and the aesthetic they adopt interrelate to make these artists influential in this early state of modernism,\” said Gersh. And although Rodin may be synonymously thought of for some of his more popular works, the rest shouldn\’t be ignored. \”Everyone thinks of ‘The Thinker’ when they think of Rodin, but everyone seems to overlook one of his more prominent pieces, ‘The Gates of Hell,’” said Whiting.
[sculpture1]Camille Claudel’s and Auguste Rodin\’s turn-of-the-century sculptures also defied the social order and convention of their time. \”Rodin was ahead of his time in terms of social conventions,\” said Gersh, and Claudel defied cultural gender roles and rebelled against popular stereotypes. The two, together, formed a masterful fusion of sculptural art. Their artistic longevity will resonate for eras to come.
\”Independently it was their ability to break boundaries, overturn the conventional paradigm of late nineteenth century French art and culture, and their ability to communicate effectively by means of sculptural representation,\” said Gersh. If non-conventional cultural phenomena are what you\’re into, visit the DIA before the exhibit is gone in February. Because, according to Gersh, Claudel and Rodin \”are now championed as two great artists, and Rodin as the best sculptor in all of art history.\”
Just think how resounding their art may have been if they had stayed together– or perhaps their genius resided in the torrid madness of a failed love.
The Detroit Institute of Arts will be hosting Camille Claudel and Rodin, \”Fateful Encounter\” until February 5th, 2006. For directions, ticket information and museum hours visit the DIA\’s website at www.dia.org.