Progression of Art
Sakuntula (or Vertumnus and Pomona)
Although also smooth-lined and romantic, this sculpture differs radically to those of her male contemporaries. Similar in composition to Rodin's Eternal Idol (1889), whilst in his sculpture we are confronted by highly polished sex and desire, here Claudel depicts love as a power of the mind, as well as an attraction between bodies. The lovers are connected as equals as they gracefully unite their heads. The title and subject of the piece originally comes from the legendary Indian tale by the poet Kalidasa, in which Sakuntula is reunited with her husband following a long magic spell. First modelled in 1886, Claudel repeatedly fought for a state commission for a marble version but was constantly refused. It was only in 1905, when the Countess of Maigret was still Claudel's financial sponsor that a version was finally carved in marble. At this point the sculpture was renamed Vertumnus and Pomona after the Roman God of metamorphosis who initially disguised himself as an old woman to gain the trust of the goddess of fruit. Indeed the sculpture is also sometimes known as The Abandon, and with these three different titles, moves from Hindu to Greek mythology, to personal experience.
Originally read as a surrender to love, the renaming in 1905 to introduce an aspect of disguise points towards Claudel's distrust of Rodin after their separation and complicates the meaning. According to the art historian, Angelo Caranfa, the piece expresses Claudel's worry that she can never detach herself entirely from Rodin. A letter written to Gustave Geffroy in 1905 indicates that the work had a particular personal and artistic significance for Claudel, "(...) I am still coughing and sneezing as I polish with rage the group destroying my tranqulity: with tear-filled eyes and convulsive groans I finish the hair of Vertumnus and Pomona. Let's hope that despite different accidents, they shall be finished in a logical way, suiting two perfect lovers." The sculpture is Claudel's hopeful recounting of tender, real, and vulnerable love. It is not an idealised symbol of love as Rodin's The Kiss has come to represent, but instead reveals love, even if in time lost, that was actually experienced by two people, not an untouchable vision, but a momentary actual joy felt in the course of everyday life.
Immortalised in bronze, a beautiful couple dance together in passionate, sensual, and harmonious embrace. They are each attentive to the other's body and spirit in the space; they are in love. As the duo lean significantly to one side the notion of the precarious in relationships is introduced, and the idea that what is quickly built can also easily fall comes to mind. The overall energy, however, is intensely joyous and romantic.
Most notable and unusual for the composition is the fact that whilst the male figure remains whole, his body fully formed from head to toe, the woman at the point of her buttocks becomes swirling cloth. Read in a positive light, the woman's transformation shows affinity with the environment and a great sensitivity to all that surrounds her. Construed negatively however, we see a warning sign that the female sense of self can be upset and in extreme cases, begin to disappear when engaged in all-consuming romance. Interestingly, after his ten-year affair with Claudel, Rodin began another ten-year affair with the British painter, Gwen John. Equally damaged by the relationship, John's self-portraits became increasingly muted and less defined afterwards.
Claudel made The Waltz in the same year that her relationship with Rodin began. In style and in spirit, the work introduced her as a significant artist in her own right, showing a love for the creation of movement in solid form and also her interest in the underlying psychology of relationships. When first exhibited however, the piece was confronted by gendered censorship and ignited indignation from critics; Armand Davot wrote, "this work cannot be accepted (...) the violent reality which emanates from it would forbid it, despite its value, a place in a public gallery." Mainly to ensure funding to get her clay maquette cast in bronze, Claudel modified the sculpture - which originally did present a whole nude woman -before presenting it to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Without realising, by forcibly adding 'a skirt', the critics had in fact added a new dimension to the meaning of this sculpture. Once altered, not only did it prefigure Claudel's own sad disintegration of self, but it also revealed the artist's interest in Art Nouveau, characterised by flowing, non-linear shapes inspired by nature. It is rumoured (although not confirmed) that Claudel may also have had a short relationship with the composer, Claude Debussy, at this time. She gave Debussy the sculpture, which remained in his study until his death.
The year following the official end of her romantic relationship with Rodin, Claudel cast Clotho in plaster. The old, naked woman stands as a vision of writhing horror and despair. All skin and bones, with hanging breasts, and a confused toothless grimace, the woman grows from the rock beneath her and she is being consumed by her own hair. Her unruly locks are also serpent-like as they wrap around her weakened form, perhaps making reference to the snake that lured Eve to her demise. Clotho though is the name of the youngest of the three fates in Greek mythology. Together with her three sisters, Clotho spun the 'thread' of human fate, whilst Lachesis dispensed it and Atropos cut it. Suddenly, the hair of Clotho becomes the thread of life and despite Claudel's sorrow at the loss of her love, she recognises that such is not misfortune as much as the weight of her destiny. It seems too that she is also aware that such a burden will follow her into old age.
Throughout their ten-year relationship, both Claudel and Rodin were interested in the representation of old age. It became somewhat of an obsession in the work of Rodin, who had already explored the theme in She who was the helmet-maker's once beautiful wife (1884). It may be that Claudel had an anxiety surrounding old age, for as their relationship deteriorated she was aware that Rodin was attracted to younger lovers.
The work also shows how as an artist, she is able to portray unapologetic, raw representation of the female nude in a way which was considered scandalous and unacceptable at the time. The plaster model of Clotho shown at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1893 was received with mixed results. While Claudel herself never recovered from the tone of distress that she introduces in this work. Indeed, art historian Griselda Pollock notes, "Alone as a woman of her class, not married to the man with whom she had a sexual relation, perhaps deeply distraught by the loss of love and undergoing major changes in her life cycle, while she watched her own sculptural ideas make Rodin the lionised figure of French sculptures, she may well have had some kind of psychological breakdown."
A group of four women form a circle, heads close together with expressive gestures indicating an animated 'secret' conversation. Huddled behind an encroaching screen, three of the women listen to the other woman as though they are conspiring. The work speaks loudly of Claudel's increasingly unstable mental health and growing paranoia. Are the women plotting against the artist, or is it the artist herself who is presenting advice to a small audience? Claudel writes to her brother that she was inspired to create The Gossips having witnessed a group of chattering women in a train carriage. The grouping of these women does seem to emphasise feelings of Claudel's own psychosis and the notion that others want to harm her. The walls appear heavy, as though they could move in and crush life at any moment, perhaps making reference to the experience of pressure within Claudel's mind.
Claudel had been separated from Rodin for several years by this point and increasingly attempted to absorb her own personal struggles into her work. Between 1893 and 1905 she called her pieces 'sketches from nature', drawing from life around her, these were original, captured great depth of expression, and were in general well-received. Claudel created many copies of The Gossips all the while experimenting with different materials. Art critic Gustave Geoffroy called the work "an apparition of truth, intimacy (...) a marvel of comprehension and human sentiment." At this time there was a great obsession in Vienna surrounding mind exploration and making portraits of those most expressive in society, including the mentally ill, but in France it was still extremely rare for artists to derive inspiration from mundane, everyday scenarios rather than from allegory or myth. In this sense, both Claudel and her works were pioneers of a new wave focused on self-investigation that would dominate 20th-century art.
Onyx Marble and Bronze
Down on her knees, a young woman begs her lover not to leave. Although he reaches with an out stretched hand, he does not look back as he is enveloped into the arms of an older woman, and guided away. Although possible to read the work as a general allegory of the passage of time from youth to old age, because of known facts about the relationship between Claudel and Rodin it is more likely that the sculpture has meaning rooted in biography. By this time, Claudel had been involved for ten years with Rodin, as his assistant, his pupil, and his lover since the age of nineteen. The couple had recently separated because Rodin refused to leave Rose Beuret. Despite romantic estrangement, Rodin continued to try and find Claudel work and Maturity was the result of these efforts. In 1899 the work was presented to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts to consider whether it should be cast in bronze. Somewhat strangely, as Rodin was on the board, the cast was not commissioned at this time, nor was the work admitted to the 1900 Universal Exhibition. The work was finally cast in 1902 with the financial support of Captain Tissier.
Rodin's involvement surrounding the work therefore becomes ambiguous; Claudel began to believe that he had intentionally sabotaged the work's development. In the words of Claudel's brother, the poet, Paul Claudel, this was an entirely autobiographical work, "(...) this vulnerable soul, this young girl on her knees...that's my sister! My sister Camille. Begging, humiliated, on her knees and naked, that proud and haughty creature (...) and what's being taken away from her at that very moment, under your very eyes, is her soul!" However, once again - as in Clotho - despite her pain, Claudel recognises that what is happening to her is less misfortune than it is destiny. Destiny has been recorded as an alternative title for the work and the old figure once again recalls Clotho, or this time Lachesis who determines the length of the life thread once woven by her sister. It seems that it has been decided by fate that Claudel will be abandoned and humiliated in love and left alone and exposed without any support or encouragement at the height of her career.
The Wave is a joyful image of three women 'set free'. They frolic naked emerged in the grandeur of nature. Their hair is abundant and unruly just like the sea itself and control is ousted as the immediacy of experience is fully embraced. Sadly and ominously however, it is clear that this playful time dancing in the sea cannot last and the wave will soon crash down. Indeed, the three women may be the three fates themselves (a repeated motif for Claudel), acting as metaphor for the sorrowful course that the artist's life must take and cannot be prevented. The three women together could also serve to make a nostalgic gesture back to earlier times when Claudel shared her studio with fellow female sculptors, to a time when the future looked bright and fate had not yet played her cruel hand.
Shown first in its plaster version in the year that it was made, the artist later chose to cast the bathers in bronze and replicate exquisite ocean tones by using onyx marble for the wave. At the time in Paris there was a literal 'wave' of enthusiasm for Japanese woodblock printing and especially for the work of Katsushika Hokusai. Claudel would have seen The Great Wave (1832), getting a direct inspiration for her own work.
Indeed Japanese art also became a great influence for Vincent Van Gogh; he shared Claudel's experience of mental instability and had the same desire to explore such torment through his art. Although successful in incorporating a complex array of new influences and showcasing great skill, this work bears testament that Claudel will not fight the might of nature any longer, that this large looming wave will bear down, and that she will be tragically consumed and lost.
Onyx Marble and Bronze