When I first saw director Bruno Nuytten’s Camille Claudel during its theatrical release, early in 1989, I was bowled over by its powerful and tragic feminist critique of the male-dominated art world in nineteenth-century France, a world in which a talented young woman’s passion and hard work could be coopted, and she herself be destroyed, by powerful and unsympathetic individuals. When I taught the film last spring, nearly two decades later, I found the story equally compelling, though I was better able to appreciate its place as a myth-making narrative both within art historical trends and within film history.
Claudel’s story is a dramatic one, even without cinematic embellishment: a long-time mistress of one of the greatest living artists, and an artist herself, her independent spirit and undeniable talent met a tragic end. After achieving artistic and critical success, she spent the last 30 years of her life in a mental institution, to which her family had committed her after she had become increasingly paranoid and reclusive following her break-up with fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin.[i]
Camille Claudel stands as part of a long tradition in cinema, the genre of bio-pics about visual artists, which owes its origins to the more general bio-pic category.[ii] The earliest artist bio-pic was Alexander Korda’s 1936 film Rembrandt, which, while shot in black-and-white, captured the chiaroscuro (light and shadow) effects for which the painter is known. The introduction of color film allowed filmmakers to present much more compelling versions of the artist’s work; some significant contributions to the genre include Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1952), Lust for Life (Vincente Minelli, 1956), and The Agony and the Ecstasy (Carol Reed, 1965). Among nearly three dozen bio-pics about artists, about a quarter of them feature female artists, though this has been a later development of the genre; the only female artist bio-pic that preceded Camille Claudel was the Mexican film Frida: Naturaleza Viva (Dir. Paul Leduc, 1984).[iii]
Bio-pics about artists generally have followed one of the two myths about artists established in these early films: first, the artist as hero, as Michelangelo was represented in The Agony and the Ecstasy (following the precedent of writing about Michelangelo that was created by the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Most Famous Artists[iv]); and second, the artist as misunderstood social outcast, even insane, as exemplified in Lust for Life. (What biographical detail of any artist’s life is more widely known than Van Gogh’s cutting off his ear? That Lust for Life would contribute to the notoriety of that sensational incident, rather than to an understanding of Van Gogh’s art – or worse yet, that it bolsters the belief that the art can be fully explained BY the artist’s dementia – is one pitfall of artist bio-pics. The myth of Van Gogh is also referred to in Don McLean’s pop song “Starry Night,” which shares in the Romantic notion of the artist suffering for his noble vision that the rest of the world cannot see – as evidenced in the line, “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”)
Although bio-pics about artists ostensibly choose their subjects because of her or his work, these films instead generally betray their real interest, which is the drama of the artist’s personal life, with the visual art works secondary at best; Camille Claudel is no exception. Filmmakers love the dramatic and the tragic; throw in a verifiable case of insanity, and a passionate love affair, and you have all the ingredients necessary to the formula. Camille Claudel (the film) shows us a number of the artist’s works, but we learn scant little about their significance from an art historical point of view. Instead, we are made to appreciate her personality: her independence, her determination, her sexuality. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the story could just as easily have been about an aspiring young woman of any profession, for the artistic identity is one that especially lends itself to our cultural assumptions of spiritedness, independence, nonconformity, and singularity of vision or purpose. Camille Claudel (the character) has all these strengths and more, which have come to be so intrinsic to our cultural definition of the artist since the Romantic period. The artist’s demise – as one who suffers because of her society’s conventionality – is a nearly inevitable part of this myth of the artist.
When the artist is a woman, her sexuality – particularly if she has a tempestuous relationship with an older and more famous male artist – almost inevitably becomes another piece of the story, and in many cases, that relationship becomes the central subject of the film – which is the case with Camille Claudel, Naturaleza Viva, Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002,), and Artemisia (Agnès Merlet, 1997). [Note: Artemisia is so historically inaccurate that is best avoided altogether, or at least approached with caution.[v]] In Camille Claudel, art is shown “as the product of sexual passion,” though not entirely inappropriately since Claudel and Rodin “in the period of their greatest mutual achievement, took images of sexual love as their very frequent subject and employed one another consensually as sexual and artistic partners.”[vi]
The historic Camille Claudel (1864-1943) achieved remarkable accomplishments in an art world that was generally closed to women. Her relationship with Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the greatest European sculptor since Michelangelo, was fraught: as his apprentice, model, and collaborator, as well as his mistress from around 1885 until 1898, she both benefited from the attention of “the Great Man” and suffered personally by his refusal to marry her, and suffered professionally by the art world’s view of her work as highly indebted to his. (Critics were not willing to make the corollary observation that his work might be equally indebted to her influence during a certain point in his career. After all, the role of muse has traditionally been restricted to women.)
Claudel’s pursuit of an artistic career encountered many obstacles. Women were not admitted into the classes at France’s premier art academy, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (in part because it would be unthinkable to allow young women to work from a nude model). In Claudel’s socioeconomic class, women were expected to confine themselves to more traditional activities and pursuits of home and family. Her sexual relationship with Rodin, 24 years her senior, was a scandal; Nuytten’s film reveals the scorn Claudel received from her own mother for her independence and lack of conformity. Her great talent as an artist – one critic wrote in 1907 that she was “without contradiction the single female sculptor upon whose brow sparkles the sign of genius” – was underappreciated; she sold little and received few state commissions (an important source of income for academic artists like Rodin). In the film, all these factors conspire to drive her mad, although it is also hinted (unfairly, according to Witherell) that her family “perhaps preferred to keep her hidden away in an obscure, inadequate hospital where she could be ignored.” Nonetheless, it can hardly be coincidence that she was committed to the asylum just one week after the death of her father – the one family member who believed in and supported her.
Some incidents in the film are worth noting here for what they reveal about Claudel’s artistic pursuits. First, modern viewers might experience righteous indignation at Claudel’s feeling of success when Rodin signs his name to one of her works; in viewing this film we should appreciate it for what it represented – the master’s approval of his apprentice’s efforts, in an atelier system in which it was accepted (and expected) that an artist as prolific and sought-after as Rodin would use many assistants to execute his commissions. Second is the encounter, later in the film, when visitor’s to Rodin and Claudel’s shared workshop, admiring a bust of Rodin which she executed from memory, commented alternately that “she has the talent of a man!” and “she’s a witch!”
The film Camille Claudel was made less than a decade after this “lost” woman artist was rediscovered, a decade in which feminist art historians made substantial progress in revising the male-dominated canon. Claudel’s work and life were brought to light after decades of obscurity, initially through a play based upon her life, performed during the winter theater season 1981-1982 in Paris, the screenplay of which was turned into a fictionalized account of Claudel’s life; the resulting book, by stage director Anne Delbée, became a bestseller. A 1984 art exhibition of Claudel’s sculpture, held in Paris and Poitiers, was the first exhibition of her work since 1907. That she would be one of the first women artists to have a film made of her life – always a fraught proposition – is one success of feminist scholarship and criticism in the discipline of art history. Fraught because, while it brings the artist far greater recognition, it always presents a fictionalized view of that individual’s life; hopefully, though, it will inspire audiences to learn more about this talented woman.
Isabelle Adjani was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1989 for her work in this film, and Camille Claudel was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
Author: Professor Elizabeth Hornbeck teaches in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, the Film Studies Program, the Department of Architectural Studies, and the Honors College. She offers a course entitled “Artists’ Lives on Film” (AHA/Film Studies 3005).
Delbée, Anne. Une femme: Camille Claudel. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1982.
Felleman, Susan. “Dirty Pictures, Mud Lust, and Abject Desire: Myths of Origin and the Cinematic Object,” Film Quarterly 55/1 (2001): 27-40. (available on JSTOR)
Garrard, Mary D. “Artemisia’s Trial by Cinema,” Art in America 86/10 (1998): 65-69. (full article)
Gaudichon, Bruno, et. al. Camille Claudel (1864-1943). Paris: Imprimerie Blanchard, 1984. Art exhibition catalogue from an exhibit held at the Rodin Museum in Paris and at the Sainte-Croix Museum in Poitiers in Spring and Summer 1984.
Paris, Reine-Marie. Camille Claudel 1864-1943. Paris: Gallimard, 1984. Biography written by the artist’s grandniece.
Rivière, Anne. L’Interdite: Camille Claudel 1864-1943. Paris: Editions Tierce, 1983.
Walker, John A. Art and Artists on Screen. Manchester and New York: Manchester U.P., 1993.
Witherell, Louise. “Camille Claudel Rediscovered,” Woman’s Art Journal 6/1 (1985): 1-7. (available on JSTOR)
[i] Louise Witherell, “Camille Claudel Rediscovered,” Woman’s Art Journal 6/1 (1985): 1-7.
[ii] The first bio-pic was Disraeli, released by Warners Studio in 1929; its enormous success established this as a new genre. The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford U.P., 1996), pp. 280-281.
[iii] Films that do depict the lives of women artists include, in chronological order: Naturaleza Viva (1984; a Mexican film about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo); Camille Claudel (1988); Carrington (1995; focuses on the British painter Dora Carrington of the Bloomsbury group); Surviving Picasso (1996; told from the perspective of Picasso’s long-time partner, French painter Françoise Gilot); Artemisia (1997; a joint French and Italian production about 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentilleschi); Pollock (2000; which focuses on the married couple Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner); Frida (2002; the second film about Frida Kahlo); and Fur (2006; a wholly fictional portrayal of photographer Diane Arbus).