Note: A version of this essay appeared on the website, The Ekphrastic Review, in 2019. Because there’s no dedicated link to the piece on the website, I decided to post it here too.
Paul Claudel, the brother of French artist Camille Claudel, had her committed to a mental institution in 1913, just after their father’s death. Although her forms indicated that she had been voluntarily admitted, they were signed by a doctor and Paul, not by Camille.
After about a year, she was moved to another hospital as protection against the advancing German front. But Claudel was a prisoner of war within her own family. Her brother rarely visited and never told her of the death of her loving father, which had allowed him to do what he had likely wanted to do for a long time. Hide away the unmanageable sister who embarrassed him with her unconventional behavior, which included living openly as an artist and having an affair with her mentor, Auguste Rodin.
“I’ll come again,” Paul might have said on those very occasional visits, as he hastened to leave. The poet-diplomat brother crossing enemy lines—for every mental patient is behind enemy lines.
Despite the fact that several of her doctors protested her confinement, her brother and mother chose to keep her hospitalized until her death in 1943.
Aside from Claudel herself, the greatest casualty of her illness was that art. Prior to her commitment, she destroyed many sculptures in psychotic fits. Only about ninety remained by the time she was locked away.
Perhaps she pictured them living on after she had smashed them. Did she feel their cold reproaches could no longer hurt her? Or did they still mock her, freeing themselves from night’s monolith and shambling toward her bed, their derision a crack in marble only she could see?
I am glad that she spared some, like La Vague. La Vague was a departure for her, so fitting it told of a wave, of a change about to move water and land as one. Bronze and marble and onyx, more delicate than what had come before. I wonder if critics were comforted when they saw it, perhaps thinking that the aging spinster had swapped her lurid embraces for decorative arts, as was proper. But Claudel had seen woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Hokusai and been inspired. In Hokusai’s work, nature is pruned and perfected but loses none of its power. His waves are as pretty as the hair of a doll but still they crash out of the frame. Maybe that’s what Claudel was after, or what she was. Rodin wrote to her in a letter, “In a single instant I feel your terrible force.”
Did she ever wish she had destroyed La Vague? In the sculpture, the wave looks like it is reaching for three young girls. It arches like the back of a woman making love, but when it touches them the faces pooling in the water are men’s. Her doctors, her brother.
Did Claudel wait for release from the asylum, as she had once waited for Rodin? Always waiting for something to happen—a love, a life—shaves softness from the mind, sharpening it like a sculptor transforming marble from innocence to experience.
During her years of confinement, Claudel may have longed for her child, the one she aborted in 1892. Or perhaps she thought an unborn son or daughter—especially a daughter—should be grateful to have been spared being cast in bronze for life’s exhibition. If what we quickened in the womb had to pass muster before the members of the academy and be given permission to come forth, like some of Claudel’s sculptures, this earth would be deserted.
Locked inside the hospital while the blood of World War I soaked fields outside, Claudel must have fought for her own truce. I wonder how she brokered peace with her mind and her situation. Did she think Rodin was still out to steal from and kill her? Maybe she pictured advancing troops made up of huge sculptures instead of men. Her work fighting her lover’s before forming a pact, then turning on her.
Back when they were lovers, Claudel and Rodin conceived a romantic contract together. It said he would leave his partner Rose and stay true to her, taking no other lover or model. Romantic and sexual contracts are the erotic flipside to commitment forms for the allegedly insane. They tease out the power dynamics of legal-judicial language in order to deliver pleasure, not penalties. The affair between Claudel and Rodin was passionate, tumultuous, so the idea of a contract to calm (or prolong) the storm must have made sense. But with lovers, sometimes appeasement masquerades as collusion.
Rodin violated its terms, of course. Who knows if he felt it to be his artist’s prerogative or if he had chosen his words based on momentary terror and need. I imagine his lover hoped he’d crafted them with assurance and strength, the way he created his unions in bronze.
Devoid of legal recourse, her demons named for her, maybe Claudel dreamt of a contract between herself and her world. One that promised a liberated woman would not be punished.
Maybe she dreamt that she would not be cast in bronze in the asylum, that she would wither and crumble, broken plaster littering the floor of a huge atelier.
Maybe she dreamt that madness was not set in stone. And maybe, through that dream, it wasn’t.