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"A revolt against nature: a woman genius." - Octave Mirbeau

A sculptor's crafts - marble, stone - are objects of nature that weren't meant to be shaped elegantly and yet, we've persisted in making them malleable forms. There's something unnaturally earthly about clay. In ancient Babylonian myths, mankind was made by Kingu's drops of blood touching clay. Classical, romantic; shaped into our reflections. Art is always reflective, or perhaps, as Lucien Freud said, "Everything is auto-biographical."

For Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, their sculptures were a reflection of the intense period spent together; Rodin for a phase, Claudel for her life. In Anne Higonet's book, Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership, she detailed their relationship: "She had become merely an episode in his life, whereas he had become a spectre that haunted her and made her unable to distinguish between past and present, between her career and her psyche." But is this the Claudel that truly existed as an artist? Schizophrenic, paranoid, after becoming a recluse, she thought Rodin would steal all of her ideas. And while Rodin married Rose, Claudel was locked away in a mental institution for thirty years.

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Was Claudel the victim? Did Rodin use her to further his career while turning his back on her after their relationship had ended? The 1988 film Camille Claudel presents these artists as complex human beings who were both to blame. Rodin's womanizing ways might have been unacceptable, but the film shows him supporting Claudel even while she accuses him of copying her work. When Rodin married Rose, he commented that she deserved to be married, for all that he had put her through. And Claudel is presented as a tragedy, not as the woman left behind, but as a genius stricken with destructive mental instabilities. A rather tragic scene involves her locked up in her house, picking up a hammer and destroying the countless works she created.

It's one of the most detailed films on the process of creating a sculpture and perhaps the process of creation as well. Claudel is shown stealing clay in the beginning, described as having the "madness of mud." Female artists do the drudge work for sculptors; Claudel sculpts a foot, which Rodin finds absolutely perfect, and she rushes home, showing it to her parents with Rodin's signature on her work. This isn't a criticism of Rodin, but of how art houses worked back then. And sculptures don't begin with stone. Smaller versions are made out of clay first, to work out the mistakes. Blanketed with a carpet of stone, the sculptor chisels into this mask to unveil their work. Hard exterior skin cracked open to reveal expression.

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Claudel's work is called into question. While exhibiting sculptures at a museum, Claudel finds that Rodin is exhibiting as well, a piece that she modeled for. The spectators gather around, whispering about the piece as they ignore Claudel's work. An ancient form of voyeurism. They gain joy out of discussing the "scandal" that is Claudel and Rodin's relationship, but there is more to this. Once one is raised to the status of a scandal, the public compromises art. Claudel is remembered for being a scandal rather than an artist. What we know best about her is her relationship with Rodin, but perhaps this was self-imposed. By allowing Rodin to become her life, she might have placed this upon her work. The film presents a different possibility though.

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When Rodin spots Claudel's piece "Maturity," he believes it's about their relationship, including Rose as the figment of death, and insists she not show it. Claudel states that they're all her: the pleading woman, the man being whisked away by death. Claudel's work is often seen as depicting her relationship with Rodin: a man and a woman, embracing as they are fused in the lower regions. The film proposes that Claudel's work is actually a fragmented collection of selves cast in clay. She is the man and the woman, fused together at the bottom; for all men have levels of estrogen and all women have levels of testosterone, but it also calls Carl Jung to mind and his idea of the anima/animus.

Claudel's work deals with the constraints humanity faces in the force of nature. La Vague depicts a group of humans ducking, trying to save themselves from the giant wave that is about to crash on them. It's as if Claudel knew that her nature was stronger than the artist, that her mental state would override creation. But her works take thought and the public is not too fond of having to think about artistic pieces. Once an easy answer is provided, they take it. Rodin represents the public, gazing upon Claudel's pieces and seeing their relationship in every one.

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In the end, Claudel was locked away in a mental institution. She spent thirty years there and was buried in a mass grave. Rodin was viewed as a master of his work, which has been a status he has sustained since. It's only now, in the modern era, that we've been looking back and realizing what a tragedy Claudel's situation was. Not that she was the scorned woman, kicked out in favor of a traditional, stable relationship. But that she was an artistic genius who was taken over by the very powers that moved her talented hands.

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February 2013

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