OpinionA revolt of nature

A revolt of nature

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – After the nth time my husband mentioned her name, I knew I needed to see with my own eyes what this was about.

On the third straight day of visiting the Chicago Institute of Art, I made the beeline to two adjoining exhibition halls at the Institute’s new wing, which showcased around 60 of French sculptor Camille Claudel’s surviving works.

While her pieces were clearly the work of a master, it was her tragic story of genius interrupted that added layers of meaning to the show that sought to reintroduce her as one of the greatest artists of our time.

Camille’s name may not ring a bell to most people, especially those outside France, but her ability to challenge the mores of her times and achieve celebrity in a field deemed in the 19th century solely as a man’s enterprise resonates with women across generations.

While painting and drawing were deemed acceptable pursuits for women, but sculpture, with its physical demands, was regarded differently. Camille’s mother, vehemently disapproved of her daughter’s “unladylike” pursuit, objected to the handling of heavy materials and the necessary messiness associated with the art.

Beyond the physical challenges, social barriers further hindered women’s access to and achievement in the world of art. Sculpture, enmeshed in a politically charged patronage system guarded by an old boys’ club, made it arduous for women to secure training, resources, and commissions. The prohibition on female artists using nude male models further restricted their ability to study and refine their work.

Camille’s strongest ally and advocate was her father, who saw the seed of genius in his daughter and believed that this talent must be allowed to flourish and blossom. Through his support and encouragement, Camille studied at the Academie Colarossi, one of the few art schools that accepted women, since the women were barred admission to the École de Beaux-arts (School of Fine Arts), regardless of the caliber of their talent. Under the guidance of sculptors Alfred Boucher and later, Auguste Rodin, Camille honed her talent, overcoming societal biases against female artists.

Despite being Rodin’s student and collaborator, Camille faced society’s double standards, placing her masterpiece, The Waltz, at risk. Seeking support from France’s Ministry of Fine Arts to commission the work, she impressed an inspector who praised her work as a “virtuoso performance” and who mentioned in his report that not even her mentor, Rodin, could “have studied with more artistic finesse and consciousness the quivering life of muscles and skin.” Despite this acknowledgment, her request was denied due to the perceived intimacy of the composition. While the ministry commissioned similarly sensual works from Rodin, acceptance for a female artist remained elusive. Camille, undeterred, revised the composition, resulting in the celebrated bronze version currently displayed at the Chicago Institute of Art, alongside other iterations of this poignant masterpiece.

The fate of Camille’s ambitious masterpiece, The Age of Maturity, hung in the balance as negotiations with the ministry for its commission faltered unexpectedly. Rodin was allegedly angered by the composition fearing it may reveal too much about his personal life, giving rise to unproven speculations on his role in the ministry’s withdrawal of support. Nevertheless, the plaster version ultimately garnered acclaim during its exhibition, emancipating Camille from Rodin’s shadow and solidifying her reputation as a sculptor in her own right. A critic even declared: “We can no longer call Mademoiselle Claudel a student of Rodin; she is a rival.”

In their 15 years of collaboration, Camille and Rodin transcended the conventional roles of student and mentor. Acting as partners, they influenced each other’s artistic processes, with instances of Rodin borrowing from Camille’s compositions. While initially facing mis-attributions, recent years have rectified this, revealing Camille’s unique style. Her mastery in extracting movement, drama, and energy

from materials, coupled with her hands-on approach to various mediums, set her apart, underscoring a legacy beyond her mentor’s influence.

Contrary to accusations, Rodin was not the catalyst for Camille’s decline; rather, it was a constricting societal framework that hindered talented individuals—particularly women—from thriving. Society struggled to recognize and value outliers, those who didn’t conform to expected norms. Camille navigated a world that resisted acknowledging the inherent brilliance of women, leading to a century-long struggle where her work was often lauded not solely for its skill but due to the perceived peculiarity of a highly talented woman. Octave Mirbeau, a renowned art critic, exclaimed, “We are in the presence of something unique, a revolt of nature: a woman genius.” Yet, the notion of a “woman genius” should not be deemed unusual, as history has always been enriched by such individuals, despite society’s reluctance to perceive and acknowledge them.

Amidst her mental anguish, deteriorating physical well-being, and financial adversity, Camille faced an additional blow with the passing of her father—an event her family chose not to disclose to her. In a distressing turn of events, her own kin forcefully committed her to a mental asylum, where she remained against her will until her demise three decades later. Strikingly, despite consistent reports from the mental facility affirming Camille’s mental soundness and suggesting the possibility of release, her family, particularly her own mother, remained obstinate, unwilling to acknowledge these recommendations. This resistance persisted, overshadowed by a preference for her younger siblings, leaving Camille, their strong-willed eldest daughter, confined and denied the opportunity to reclaim her freedom or express herself through her art.

As I stand amidst the powerful legacy of Camille Claudel, her story unfolds not just as a testament to artistic brilliance but as a poignant reflection of societal constraints. The resounding echoes of her struggles against gender biases and societal limitations reverberate through her masterpieces, each telling a tale of resilience and defiance. Camille dared to challenge conventions, facing adversity not only in the art world but in her personal life—a narrative that culminated in her unjust confinement to a mental asylum by the very family meant to support her. Yet, amid the shadows of tragedy, her sculptures emerge as beacons of untamed creative force.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato captures the essence of the exhibition: “What I hope people feel when they walk through this exhibition is to acknowledge the tragedy with the hope of not repeating it and to feel the extraordinary creations that came out of her spirit. And that needed to be born. I think it is a wonderful reminder that not every human being fits into a neat box, one that’s manageable, acceptable to society. Some are stallions and have hurricanes of creative force inside that the world needs to experience. And thank goodness in these sculptures we can still experience that extraordinary creative force that she brought into the world.”

Camille’s sculptures stand as enduring testaments to the extraordinary creative force that defies confinement, a force the world must continue to experience and celebrate.

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Author’s email: [email protected]

 

 

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