Picks and Pans Review: Camille

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Reine-Marie Paris

For years she has languished in the shadows, her work unknown to the public. If discussed at all, she was a footnote in a great man's life. Camille Claudel was the student and mistress of Auguste Rodin, the French artist who dominated the world of European sculpture in the late 19th and early 20th century. In this new biography she is warmly championed by Paris, an art historian, who seeks to establish her as one of the great French sculptors. Claudel is not an easy subject for a biographer to tackle. There are major gaps in the record and much crucial evidence has been destroyed. It is still not known, for example, if Claudel actually bore Rodin two sons. What is known is that Camille Claudel was 19 and at the height of her beauty when she met Rodin, then 43, in the early 1880s. She had deep blue eyes and auburn hair that fell to her waist. Edmond de Goncourt, an art writer, once noted her presence at a Parisian soiree. "Tonight, at the Daudets'," he wrote, "the little Claudel, a student of Rodin." Claudel evolved quickly into Rodin's collaborator and muse. They labored side by side on his masterpiece The Gates of Hell—she modeled some of the arms and torsos—and separately they produced pieces so similar in mood and technique that it has been difficult in some cases to determine which of them executed what works. Camille also posed for a number of portraits sculpted by Rodin, including The Thought, a haunting work with the head of a young maiden emerging from an unfinished block of marble. Around 1893, the lovers separated—Rodin had refused to leave his longtime companion Rose Beuret. Claudel, on her own, slowly went mad. She suffered from a persecution complex and was convinced Rodin was trying to kill her. Systematically she set out to destroy her works, smashing them with a hammer. In 1913 she was locked up in an institution for the insane. Never released, she died in 1943 in an asylum in the south of France. "She had gambled everything on Rodin," her brother, poet-playwright Paul Claudel, later wrote. "She lost everything with him. Like a beautiful vessel sailing over troubled waters, she finally sank below the waves." Paris has, however, succeeded in shining a strong light on Claudel's troubled existence, and she is in a unique position to do so. The granddaughter of Paul Claudel and Camille's grandniece, Paris had firsthand access to unpublished papers, medical documents and letters Camille wrote from the asylum. Paris' book reads less like a biography than a series of fascinating sketches, and her treatment of Claudel is marred by a few baffling interpretations. She does not believe, for example, that Claudel was ever passionately in love with Rodin, arguing that Camille's affection "was tempered and quite rational—almost calculating." Claudel's artistic reputation is the subject of renewed debate in France, and the publication of Paris' book here coincides with an exhibition of her work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., through the end of May. This fall a movie based on Paris' biography, with Isabelle Adjani as Camille and Gerard Depardieu as Rodin, will open in Paris. (Seaver, $29.95)

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