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Rediscovering the Overlooked Talent of Camille Claudel

With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d’Orsay, one of the most underrated sculptors in modern European history is brought out from the shadows

Along the second floor of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, 11 sculptures in plaster, terracotta and bronze trace the career of one of the most underrated artists in modern European history. Until 11 February, these newly acquired works by Camille Claudel (1864–1943) – historically best known as the lover and artistic partner of Auguste Rodin – will be on show before entering the Musée d’Orsay’s permanent collection; the rest will be going to five other museums throughout France, including the Rodin Museum in Paris and the recently opened Camille Claudel Museum, an hour southeast of the capital; the Sainte-Croix Museum in Poitiers; and the Piscine Museum and the Camille and Paul Claudel House, both in the north.

Initially, none of these sculptures were expected to be made public at all. Last year, the Claudel family consigned 20 lots to Artcurial, a Paris-based auction house, which put the works up for auction in November. However, with the backing of the French Minister of Culture, Françoise Nyssen, the government used a relatively rare law created in 1921 allowing them to ‘pre-empt’ works of ‘national importance’ that are to be sold through auction houses in France. As is law, the government matched the sale price, including buyer’s premium, and purchased the sculptures for France’s public museums.

In the case of Claudel, the public should be particularly grateful. These sculptures range from works made during her beginnings as an art student in Paris in 1881 until just before she was committed to a psychiatric hospital, most probably against her will, in 1913.

One of the clearest themes throughout these works is Claudel’s interest in old bodies and old age, especially the ways in which elderly women are treated, depicted and understood. Her stunning Old Woman’s Head (c.1890), which will go into the Musée d’Orsay’s permanent collection, portrays an octogenarian Italian woman, Maria Caira, who also modelled for Rodin. Made entirely of plaster, Claudel’s sculpture details Caira’s sunken eyes, oversized ears, bulbous nose and wrinkled face with the same respect and careful detail as she applied to one of her first and youngest creations, Diana (c.1881) which depicts the young face of the Roman huntress, raised on a plaster pedestal with her features styled as if she were a head of state or queen. In doing so – and thanks to the museum’s decision to immediately juxtapose the two – Claudel draws attention not so much to Caira’s age and her according features but more to her power and dignity. Rodin praised these sculptures as full of ‘pathetic realism’.

Read the rest of the essay at Frieze.

Photo: “Mask of Camille Claudel and Left Hand of Pierre de Wissant,” Auguste Rodin (c. 1895), Musée Rodin, Paris.

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