A Woman Under The Influence

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Auguste Rodin's sculpture "Balzac" is displayed at the "Camille Claudel and Rodin: Fateful Encounter" exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts

It's safe to say that Auguste Rodin, one of the pivotal figures in the history of art, would have arrived at greatness even if he had never encountered Camille Claudel, the young sculptor who became his mistress and acolyte. By the time they met, in 1882, he was already in full possession of his powers. The real question is whether Claudel would have become what she did without Rodin, who fostered her gifts and then, perhaps, overwhelmed them. What she became, for a while, was a sculptor of some consequence. After that she devolved into an increasingly erratic talent, struggling to escape from Rodin's shadow and eventually ending up in a mental hospital. Their romantic misery can't be blamed for all of Claudel's mental difficulties, but it surely played its part. Sharing a bed with genius is an adventure. And adventures can be dangerous things.

This is the lesson of "Camille Claudel and Rodin: Fateful Encounter," the fascinating and even moving new exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts through February 5. The show is simultaneously a choice selection of Rodin's work, a thorough survey of Claudel's and an intricately woven account of their artistic and romantic interaction. It brings together 155 examples of their art, plus photographs, letters and journal entries, to trace the arc of a heated, exhausting attachment that came to an unhappy end, but not before it left its mark on some of their most enduring work.

When they met, Claudel was 17, the daughter of a provincial French bureaucrat so dedicated to his gifted children that he moved the family to Paris to further their education. (It paid off twice. Camille's younger brother would grow up to be the famous poet, diplomat and archconservative Catholic Paul Claudel.) Rodin was 41, on the brink of fame after decades of frustration. He was also a dedicated satyr. The dancer Isadora Duncan, whom he would meet some years later, once said that whenever they were together she felt like "a nymph in front of a centaur." Though Rodin had a longtime mistress, Rose Beuret, and a whole string of others on the side, his affair with Claudel would have an intensity unlike any others. After the sex they could talk about Bernini and Donatello.

Rodin was quick to recognize not just Claudel's pensive beauty but also her talent and to promote her to collectors and critics. She was just as quick to absorb the lessons of his work, in which figures could seem as though they were modeled from magma, erupting from the earth in anguished or compelling postures. Her early portrait bust of Rodin, with the fiercely modeled turmoil at its base, might almost have come from his hand. In a sense, of course, it did. But in time his example would prove too formidable. Rodin had rethought the human body more thoroughly than any sculptor since Michelangelo and made it the vessel of passions—pain, pathos, ecstasy—that the increasingly insipid conventions of 19th century statuary could not contain. That is immediately apparent in his magnificent Saint John the Baptist, a lean, striding nude who bears no attributes of the saint—no lamb, no staff—so that the saint's spiritual force is expressed entirely in the headlong power of his anatomy.

Seen together, the most striking works that emerged out of Rodin and Claudel's long entanglement make a fever chart of their afflicted romance. At its height they both produced delirious representations of sexual passion. The acrobatic lovers of Rodin's I Am Beautiful —the male figure hoists a bundled woman into the air—are emblems of himself and her. So are the dancers in the erotic cyclone that is Claudel's The Waltz.

As it happened, the definitive version of The Waltz was not completed until 1893. By that time Rodin had decided not to marry the increasingly erratic and accusing Claudel and instead to return to his old mistress Beuret. Claudel would respond with her masterpiece of abjection, The Age of Maturity, a commission from the French government that Rodin helped her to obtain. A near life-size bronze, it shows a young woman on her knees reaching out vainly to a man being led away by another woman. This desolate ensemble was supposed to be an allegory of man's inevitable journey toward death. Rodin had no trouble finding in it a disguised portrait of himself, Beuret and Claudel. After the work was first exhibited in public, the French government abruptly decided against purchasing it. Historians suspect that Rodin may have been behind the cancellation. Certainly Claudel did.

In the years during which she completed The Age of Maturity, Claudel struggled ever harder to find a style distinct from Rodin's. Working under the spell of Art Nouveau and Japanese prints, she produced some fascinating small exercises like The Wave, in which a near abstract surf of marble/onyx rises above three capering nudes. But the Detroit show is frank in acknowledging the timidity, repetition and sheer mediocrity of some of her late work. Yet even when she was turning out retrograde sculptural commissions for the Countess de Maigret, who served for a time as her patron, she could not help sometimes but to produce them with authority. Perseus and the Gorgon, in which the son of Zeus holds high the severed head of Medusa while her winged body collapses in a long arc around his feet, may not be the work of an avant-gardist, but that dynamic torquing line, the complexity of volume and void, are the work of a woman who could bring virtuosity even to what she made for philistine tastes.

Claudel, who became increasingly paranoid, produced no new work after 1913, when her family had her committed to a mental hospital. The following year she was transferred to another asylum, where she remained until her death almost three decades later. Rodin would die in 1917, one year after the faithful Beuret, whom he had finally married just weeks before her death. Toward the end he was also still secretly sending money to ensure Claudel's comfort at the asylum. If it wasn't an ideal romance, it was in its way an enduring one, and it left some lasting treasures behind.