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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rodin's Inspiration: A Novel to Inspire Artists and Women Everywhere

Camille Claudel: A Novel
Author: Alma H. Bond, Ph.D.
Publisher: Publish America, LLLP
ISBN: 1-4241-1670-8
Reviewer: Evie Sears for Lady Book Notes

The story of Camille Claudel is the story of a woman born ahead of her time, a female genius for whom the world was not ready, a woman who attained heights of artistic ecstasy and endured acute personal and mental agony.

Camille Claudel was born on December 8, 1864 in a village in northern France, the eldest of three surviving children (her elder brother died when merely fifteen days old). As a child, she enjoyed warm relations with her father and brother, but her relations with her mother and sister were distant and cold. Claudel’s fascination with art began when, as a young child, she sculpted figures from stones and mud. Having moved with her family to Paris as a teenager, Claudel began studying with Auguste Rodin in 1884, at the age of nineteen. Her tumultuous relationship with Rodin shaped the remainder of Claudel’s life.

Claudel quickly became Rodin’s inspiration and served as the model for many of his sculptures. She also became one of his principal assistants whose work on many detailed portions of his sculptures was invaluable. Most significantly for Claudel, in spite of the fact that he was a married man more than twenty years her senior, she became Rodin’s lover. After nearly a decade of intimacy, and at least one pregnancy that ended in either miscarriage or abortion, Claudel finally realized that Rodin would never marry her and severed their intimate relationship. Soon thereafter, Claudel stopped working in Rodin’s atelier, though she continued to see Rodin in professional capacities for several more years.

From 1884 until the early 1900s, Claudel was an expressive sculptor whose style grew more distinct from Rodin’s after the breakup of their relationship and her departure from Rodin’s studio. Dozens of her works are still displayed and admired in museums around the world. Her achievements are particularly noteworthy when one considers the amount of time she spent assisting Rodin’s career in her roles as his model and assistant. Claudel was close friends with Claude Debussy, whom she greatly admired. Sadly for both of them, however, she did not love Debussy with the passion she felt for Rodin.

Although Claudel’s precarious mental state began manifesting itself around 1905, it is unclear when her decline began. Claudel locked herself away for long periods of time, created and destroyed numerous sculptures, acquired a houseful of cats to be her companions, let her property and house rot around her and took no care of her physical condition and appearance. She who had once been a beautiful woman became, prematurely, a hag, convinced that a jealous Rodin was trying to steal her works and impede her career.

There were many factors that probably contributed to Claudel’s mental decline. Her failed relationship with Rodin and the loss of her child (particularly if she was compelled against her will to have an abortion) were likely contributing factors. The dysfunctional relations within her family also may have contributed to Claudel’s decline. Her father was the only family member who supported her, her brother tolerated her, and her mother and sister outright rejected her. The rigors of being an independent female artist in a male-dominated world certainly had negative effects on Claudel. Her life was a never-ending struggle to acquire commissions, sell her works and attain the professional status she believed (rightly, as it turned out) she deserved. Rodin, Claudel’s mentor, enjoyed degrees of fame, success and prestige that Claudel never attained. While he prospered, she nearly starved. Unable to support herself, Claudel remained financially dependent upon her father until his death in 1913. Eight days after their father’s death, Claudel’s brother committed her to an asylum.

Claudel spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum in the mountains of southern France. Her mother and sister never visited her and her brother visited intermittently, approximately a half-dozen times in thirty years. After several years of treatment, Claudel’s psychiatrist suggested that her family should take her home and reintegrate her into their home and society. They did not take up his suggestion. Since her family had no interest in resuming relations with Claudel, she remained institutionalized until her death on October 19, 1943, at the age of 79.

Alma H. Bond, a psychoanalyst, has written a compelling account of Claudel’s tragic life. She presents the story as a memoir written by Claudel in the final days of her life. Although the broad outlines of the story are true, Bond has taken liberties in setting scenes, providing dialog, and revealing Claudel’s purported thought processes and interpretations. Bond states clearly that hers is a fictional account, simply one plausible view of Claudel’s life; it should not be read as a definitive biographical or historical work. Nevertheless, Bond reveals the heartbreak of a gifted woman working in a society that rejects her personally and pays scant attention to her artwork. Bond lifts the veil on the heartbreak of an impressionable, sensitive young woman betrayed by an older lover. Bond discloses the family dysfunctions that remained hidden from view, or ignored, even when they resulted in gross injustices. Clearly, even though the work is fictional, it offers a compelling, accurate glimpse at the broad characteristics of an era.

Bond’s most extraordinary feat is the way she portrays Claudel’s subtly deteriorating mental state. Early signs of paranoia are evident from the outset in Claudel’s descriptions of her childhood home. During Claudel’s happiest period, the height of her romance with Rodin, the paranoid tendencies are more subtle, but not entirely absent. After her breakup with Rodin, the paranoid tendencies resurface slowly and build gradually until Claudel’s institutionalization in 1913. In an accurate depiction of mental illness, Bond balances Claudel’s periods of lunacy and lucidity. Sometimes the reader is uncertain whether Claudel’s viewpoint is delusional or uncannily insightful. Bond understands mental illness and she presents it masterfully.

Camille Claudel: A Novel is a beautifully written book that seizes the reader’s mind and heart. Readers who have never heard of Camille Claudel will, upon finishing this book, seek to learn more about this wonderfully gifted artist and her work. This book, notwithstanding the fact that it is fiction, should be required reading for all students of women’s studies and art history.

Reviewed by Evie Sears

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