A new mu­seum shows how Rodin’s muse was a fine sculp­tress in her own right.

France - - Bienvenue -

My eyes are fixed on a cou­ple per­form­ing the waltz. The man holds his beloved ten­derly in his arms while the woman gazes back at him with love and long­ing in her eyes. I am not watch­ing a re­hearsal for Strictly Come Danc­ing; in fact, I am gaz­ing at a beau­ti­ful glazed stone sculp­ture – La Valse ( The Waltz) – one of 43 works by Camille Claudel housed in a new mu­seum.

This is the first na­tional mu­seum ded­i­cated to Claudel – best re­mem­bered for be­ing Au­guste Rodin’s muse and lover – and has opened in No­gent-sur-Seine, where the artist spent part of her child­hood in the late 1870s. The Musée Camille Claudel sits in­side her fam­ily’s 18th-cen­tury home, which has been ex­tended to cre­ate a three-storey, 1,283 square me­tre ex­hi­bi­tion space.

Min­i­mal­ist in­te­rior

The trans­for­ma­tion was mas­ter­minded by French ar­chi­tect Adelfo Scaranello, who has cre­ated a struc­ture with mod­ern ap­peal; the bright white, min­i­mal­ist in­te­rior is clad with hand­some clay bricks on the out­side that en­sure the build­ing com­ple­ments the sur­round­ing ar­chi­tec­ture.

The first piece to greet vis­i­tors is L’aban­don, a work that many art crit­ics see as be­ing sym­bolic of Claudel’s char­ac­ter: da­m­aged, ne­glected and un­ful­filled. “This work strikes a chord as it shows you how much Camille suf­fered,” says Cé­cile Ber­tran, the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor. The work was first ex­hib­ited as a plas­ter model, but the artist never won a com­mis­sion for it to be cast in bronze. It was only years af­ter Claudel’s death in 1943 that this was done, but the plas­ter had been badly da­m­aged fol­low­ing decades in stor­age, so the sculp­ture is in­com­plete.

I am long­ing to dis­cover more of Claudel’s pieces, but pa­tience is re­quired, be­cause the visit is de­signed in such a way that you first learn about the his­tory of 19th-cen­tury French sculp­ture. What fol­lows is a dis­play of the evo­lu­tion of art and the in­flu­ence of lo­cal artists, one of whom was Al­fred Boucher.

It was Boucher who first recog­nised the sculp­tress’s tal­ent, af­ter her fa­ther had asked his opin­ion on the 12-yearold’s works with clay. Boucher be­came Claudel’s men­tor and taught her for three years. He in­tro­duced her to his friend, Rodin, who took over the role of teacher af­ter Boucher left for Florence.

Nu­mer­ous life-like busts pro­duced by Boucher are on show; the most eye­catch­ing is Vol­u­bilis, which Cé­cile tells me is based on the con­cept of beauty emerg­ing from a roughly carved sur­round. Nearby, in an atrium bathed in nat­u­ral light, stand other in­flu­en­tial works by lo­cal artists in­clud­ing a life-size statue of Joan of Arc by Paul Dubois, where the viewer’s gaze is drawn to the horse’s strained face.

Of all those who in­flu­enced the life and ca­reer of Camille Claudel, it is Rodin, cre­ator of The Kiss and The Thinker, who stands out. His works also fea­ture at the mu­seum, which has

opened at an ap­pro­pri­ate time, in the cen­te­nary of the sculp­tor’s death. The an­niver­sary is be­ing marked by mu­se­ums through­out France, in­clud­ing the Grand Palais in Paris, which has brought to­gether some of his most fa­mous pieces.

“Camille Claudel’s work was al­ways seen as be­ing a prod­uct of Rodin’s, but con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, they ac­tu­ally learned from each other,” Cé­cile says. At the age of 19, Claudel be­came an as­sis­tant to Rodin, who was fas­ci­nated by what Cé­cile de­scribes as her “fiery tem­per­a­ment and ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent”. It was the next work that vis­i­tors see, a bust of an el­derly woman en­ti­tled The Old He­len, which ig­nited their re­la­tion­ship. Rodin first saw it when the cou­ple met in 1882 and he is said to have been deeply moved by the ex­pres­sive fa­cial fea­tures.

What fol­lows on the visit is an ex­plo­ration of the artists’ love af­fair through their in­di­vid­ual sculp­tures on sim­i­lar sub­jects. Claudel’s Crouch­ing Woman torso is said to be the first work that she mod­elled in Rodin’s stu­dio. She is also be­lieved to have worked on some of his mas­ter­pieces, in­clud­ing The Gates of Hell, where she was given the task of mak­ing the hands and feet of some of the 200 fig­ures. In her Man Lean­ing Over, the frag­men­tary na­ture of the torso sug­gests Rodin’s in­flu­ence; mean­while, Claudel’s in­flu­ence on Rodin is clearly seen in his work Galatea, which is markedly sim­i­lar to Claudel’s ear­lier Young Girl with a Sheaf.

Com­par­ing other works on dis­play, no­tably Rodin’s Eter­nal Spring and The Eter­nal Idol, and Claudel’s Sak­oun­tala and Aban­don­ment, the joint theme of a cou­ple em­brac­ing shows the duo’s shared in­spi­ra­tion. But the emo­tions ex­pressed are some­what dif­fer­ent. “The im­pe­ri­ous ges­ture in Rodin’s works hints at male dom­i­na­tion, while the bal­ance of sus­pended ges­tures in Claudel’s sug­gests ten­der­ness,” Cé­cile says.

Al­though Rodin pro­moted his lover’s works, she be­came frus­trated at not win­ning pub­lic con­tracts, and when she lost a ma­jor com­mis­sion from the state, she blamed him per­son­ally. By 1893, their re­la­tion­ship had be­gun to break down (Rodin re­fused to leave his long-term part­ner Rose Beuret) and Claudel sought

to iso­late her­self and break away from Rodin’s artis­tic style.

One of the sculp­tress’s sig­na­ture works – The Gos­sips – de­picts her ef­forts to es­cape Rodin’s grip. “It’s a minia­ture bronze statue with a mon­u­men­tal ef­fect. We feel that we can ac­tu­ally hear the gos­sip,” Cé­cile says. This onyx and bronze sculp­ture was cre­ated be­tween 1893 and 1905, be­fore Claudel fell ill, but many be­lieve this piece sym­bol­ises the para­noia that would lead to her emo­tional de­cline and ul­ti­mate con­fine­ment in a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion. “It could be that she made this sculp­ture when all her men­tal trou­bles were just be­gin­ning,” Cé­cile sug­gests.

An­other poignant work close by is Rodin’s L’adieu, de­pict­ing Camille’s deeply melan­choly face, most likely sculpted fol­low­ing their fi­nal en­counter. But my at­ten­tion is di­verted to an­other sculp­ture, that of Claudel’s The Age of Ma­tu­rity. This al­le­gor­i­cal sculp­ture shows a young woman reach­ing out to an older man who is be­ing flat­tered by a ma­ture woman. Claudel is clearly the for­saken younger woman, as Rodin goes to live with his older lover – the heart­break is pal­pa­ble, as her face bursts with emo­tion.

The fi­nal room in the mu­seum is dom­i­nated by one work, Perseus and the Gor­gon, which the town of No­gent-sur-Seine ac­quired for €950,000 in 2008 with the help of her­itage fund­ing. Claudel’s only mon­u­men­tal mar­ble sculp­ture de­picts the mytho­log­i­cal scene of the Greek hero clutch­ing the mon­ster’s sev­ered head. The clas­si­cal sub­ject pro­vides an in­sight into the artist’s fraught psy­che; the gor­gon’s face is re­puted to be a self-por­trait sym­bol­is­ing the de­struc­tion caused by her rup­ture with Rodin.

I am moved by the dis­plays, and the com­ments from other vis­i­tors echo my feel­ings. Camille Claudel died be­liev­ing that Rodin had pre­vented her from be­com­ing an ac­com­plished artist, but their re­la­tion­ship has helped her work to live on, cul­mi­nat­ing in the ul­ti­mate trib­ute – a na­tional mu­seum in her own name.

MAIN PIC­TURE: A room at the Musée Camille Claudel, which in­cludes a cab­i­net dis­play­ing four ver­sions of La Valse, each in a dif­fer­ent ma­te­rial; RIGHT: Claudel pho­tographed aged 20

ABOVE: Claudel’s al­le­gor­i­cal sculp­ture The Age of Ma­tu­rity re­flects the end of her af­fair with Rodin; LEFT: The eye-catch­ing ex­te­rior of the Musée Camille Claudel in No­gent-sur-seine

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