This morning the Parisian sky is the 55th shade of grey and totally matches my mood. I’ve just gotten back from Avignon after having accompanied Jessie to visit her old friend Camille who, years before, had been committed to the asylum of Montdevergues. It was my first experience visiting an asylum and the whole encounter still has me shaking. So, to exorcize the demons I saw, I’m sitting here at Café de la Rotonde with a carafe of pastis, pen in hand.
“Asylum” is a funny word. It comes from the Greek άσυλο (asilo) meaning “sanctuary”, a place of safety. But I saw nothing safe about Montdevergues and its dull walls that were like chipped blankets of stone. It reminded me of Ten Days in a Mad House. Journalist Nellie Bly had pretended to be crazy so she could be committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York. After ten days, she left and wrote about the brutality she experienced while locked up. Meals were decaying food, a bath was a bucket of cold water dumped over her head, rats invested the excrement covered rooms, and, if she complained, she was beaten. It was an experience that would make a sane person go crazy. Nellie learned that a woman had no voice once a man said she was a lunatic.
Troubled by the vision of Camille in such a terrifying situation, I begged Jesse to tell me her friend’s story.
Jessie Lipscomb had moved to Paris from London in 1884 to continue her art studies. Here she met Camille and the two became friends. They not only shared a studio, they also worked as practiciens for the famed sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Camille Claudel was only 19 and Rodin 44. Jesse maintained a professional attitude but, unfortunately, Camille fell in love with Rodin and became his lover. Eventually Jesse returned to England where she married a pharmacist. Camille, instead, married an impossible dream.
Initially, it was an experience that gave Camille the opportunity to learn much about sculpture. But she was a promising young sculptress and wanted to be more than just Rodin’s assistant. Rodin expected Camille to help him finish his works instead of working on her own sculptures allowing him to create the myth of superman` productivity. Camille was a genius living in a man’s world and, unfairly, would never be considered much more than Rodin’s protégée instead of an artist in her own right. Camille was left blurred.
Camille worked on both The Kiss (1882) and The Gates of Hell (1880-1890) both considered to be two of Rodin’s masterpieces.
Just as Camille had moved closer to herself artistically because of Rodin, the sculptor, after seeing the “Tomb of Giuliano de’Medici” in Florence, said that “Michelangelo revealed me to myself”.
Rodin had promised Camille he would marry her even though he had no intention of doing so as it would have meant leaving his companion of 20 years, Rose Beuret. Camille felt betrayed, humiliated, overwhelmed and, as a result, often reacted irrationally.
In 1892, Camille and Rodin, after more than 10 years of being together, separated. The separation changed her work as well as her finances. Initially, Rodin tried to help her economically but Camille no longer trusted him. She said he tried to sabotage her career and called him The Ferret.
Le Valse is one of Camille’s most erotic statues. So erotic that academics forced her to drape the lower part of the statue. Just like Michelangelo, she was censored. After Michelangelo’s death, there was much controversy over the Sistine Chapel nudes. So artist Daniele da Volterra was hired to cover up the genitals in The Last Judgement with fig leaves and loincloths. This earned the artist the name of Il Braghettone, The Breeches Maker.
There is some debate as to whether or not Camille and Claude Debussy had an intimate relationship. Camille gave a version of Le Valse to Debussy who kept it on his studio mantelpiece for 25 years. It makes one wonder if his 1890 Valse romantique was inspired by Camille’s statue.
One of Camille’s masterpieces is that of “Shakuntala” based on the Hindu wife of Dushyanta. But the sculpture actually represents her and Rodin. Like Shakuntala’s husband, Rodin forgets his promise. But eventually his memory returns and he begs forgiveness. Shakuntala loves him so she welcomes him back and tenderly lets him embrace her.
The Mature Age (c. 1899) was a three piece figure showing a man turning his back on a young woman and being led away but a decrepit old woman. It was obviously based on Camille, Rodin, and Rose. Rodin did what he could to keep Camille from exhibiting the sculpture at the 1900 Universal Exhibition. This rejection intensified her feeling of paranoia and that Rodin wanted to destroy her.
You don’t just wake up crazy as did Kafka’s Gregor Samsa .
Camille’s mother did not like her eldest daughter and obviously favored her other children. Camille was talented, ambitious, independent in thought—all characteristics that Camille’s mother believed to be inappropriate for a woman who should only conform and seek a respectable marriage. Her father, instead, supported his daughter’s desire to study art which only created more distance between Camille and her mother and siblings. Camille’s childhood imprinting was instrumental in her breakdown.
Rodin was old enough to be Camille’s father. But there was nothing paternal about his behavior towards her. She used her skills to make his sculpture, her ideas to inspire him, and her body to pacify his passions. And for the latter she bore the stigma of being a mistress which, especially at the time, was considered the same as being a prostitute. It’s rumored that Camille had born Rodin at least two children. But there is no doubt that she had at least one abortion that her zealot brother Paul held against her.
For years Rodin had promised to marry her but he lied. Her dignity demanded that she leave him.
A nervous breakdown occurs when you can’t cope with stress and trauma. You begin to have difficulties controlling your behavior and even doing the simplest of things. Like keeping up with personal hygiene. In 1905, living alone with her cats in her studio on the Île Saint- Louis, Camille began to unravel. Rodin, despite his commitment to do so, no longer wanted to pay her rent creating an added economic stress for her. Overdosed with difficulties, Camille snapped and thus lost her only true patron, the Comtesse de Maigret.
Betrayed by the man she had given herself to, Camille became more and more of a recluse and distanced herself from others fearing that they might hurt her, too. She alienated herself from everyone including herself and began destroying her work. But the worst happened when, in 1913, her father died. He’d been the person she’d felt closest to. One week after her father’s death, Camille’s mother and brother had her committed then destroyed what was left of her studio.
If there is a villain in the story of Camille, more than Rodin, it’s her brother, Paul. The doctors at the asylum tried to reason with him insisting that Camille was not insane. But all Paul cared about was getting her out of the way.
Paul Claudel was a writer, diplomat, and right-wing religious fanatic. In his youth he’d considered becoming a Benedictine monk but, instead, chose a more prestigious career with the French diplomatic corps. Despite his moralistic attitude towards his sister, Paul had a long affair with a married woman and mother of four. She also became pregnant by Paul. And despite Paul’s talents as a writer, it cannot be forgotten that he was a misogynist who hated Jews and Muslims.
In 1917, after more than five years of being a prisoner in a mental institution, Camille wrote one of her doctors begging for help. Her only crime, she said, was that of wanting to live alone with her cats. Not only was she deprived of her freedom, she wasn’t even allowed to make art or correspond with the outside world. Despite the doctors’ claim that Camille was not mentally ill, she stayed imprisoned until her death 30 years later.
During WWII, there was a shortage of food thanks to the German requisition and rationing of food. The Vichy regime literally tried to get rid of patients in mental institutions by starving them to death.
In all the years that Camille was forced to live in a mental institution, the self-righteous diplomat who travelled the world visited his sister only a handful of times while she was in the institution he had placed her in. And not even one visit from her mother. At the age of 78, Camille died alone and was buried in the asylum’s mass grave. Her family didn’t bother to claim her body. Only her doctor attended her funeral. He was witness to her small body wrapped in a sheet being thrown into a hole with a clump of corpses.
Touch can provide proof of existence. Think of Jesus and Thomas. We’re told in the Gospel of John that, unlike the other Apostles, Thomas missed seeing Jesus after his resurrection and doubted that Jesus could be alive. So Jesus appeared to him a week later and said: “Touch me and stop doubting”. But to Mary Magdalene, already a believer, Jesus said “Noli me tangere”– don’t touch me.
It’s said that on his deathbed, Rodin called out for his wife. And when his lifetime companion, Rose Bueret, appeared, Rodin said “No, not her, the other one” no doubt referring to Camille.
“There is always something missing that torments me” Camille Claudel.
(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)