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