The Musée Rodin, which occupies an eighteenth century mansion in the rue de Varenne in Paris is without doubt the most beautiful stately home I have ever seen. Its south façade, seen from the bottom of the gardens, is quintessentially French petit bourgeois. The gardens contain Rodin’s most famous publically commissioned sculptures – Balzac, The Burghers of Calais, The Thinker and The Gates of Hell – all of which are a wonderful feast for the eyes, but it is when you enter the house and wander from one exquisite room into another, each one retaining its original flooring, doors, decorative features of oversized ornate mirrors, carved fire places and cornices, painted ceilings, grandiose chandeliers, etc, etc, etc, that your senses are in real danger of complete overload. To start with, the history of the building is almost palpable – as if the Master has just left the very room which you have entered. Then in addition to this, each room contains a selection of exquisite work, predominantly (obviously) by Rodin and his students, assistants and also from his private collection, including pieces from antiquity as well as artists such as Van Gogh, Monet and Bourdelle, all of which are testament to a period in art history which produced sculpture of such grandiose and classical intent and executed with a vigour, passion and skill which is quite simply awe inspiring. Whether in marble, plaster or cast in bronze and life size or marquettes, there really are not enough adjectives to describe the sheer joy and wonder felt by being surrounded work such as this. The fact that Rodin himself lived here between 1908-1916, holding his salons, meeting his collectors and dignitaries and artist friends, just adds to the romance of the overall experience.But it is to see the work of Camille Claudel which draws me here, as the Musée holds the largest permanent collection of her work. Claudel was Rodin’s most celebrated student, lover and muse, whose undoubted skill and talent have been overshadowed by her relationship with the artist and her subsequent long term internment in a mental asylum. Her position within art history has been reduced to the same fate as many female artists who were either partners of, or married to, more famous male artists, thus only being of interest for the time of their involvement with their male counterpart lasted. Their work is invariably seen as second rate copies and being inspired by the artist they were involved with rather than standing by their own merit.
This visit really was a pilgrimage for me. I nearly jumped with joy when I finally came upon her work. According to some guide books, Claudel’s surviving work was once housed in a room dedicated entirely to her ouvre. Now that same room has rather disingenuously been downgraded and renamed “Rodin’s Circle”, housing works acquired by the artist during his lifetime, which includes not only her work, but paintings by Van Gogh and Monet to name but two.
But what work Mademoiselle Claudel! Clotho (1893) is a 90cm high plaster piece of a mythological figure from the Three Fates, here depicted as an elderly woman with sagged breasts and protruding stomach, her haggard face enveloped in a mane of hair which binds the woman’s ravished body.In stark contrast, the youthful figures in the bronze Waltz (also dated 1893) are enveloped in drapery as they sensuously embrace in the rhythm of the dance.
Taking centre stage in the room The Age of Maturity (1899) is a bronze cast of an uncompleted plaster study, which has often been interpreted as an autobiographical work, illustrating Rodin hesitating between his aging mistress and his new young lover – all tormented drapery and high Art Nouveau which nevertheless packs a punch – the fingerprints of the artist and signs of carving remain a visceral pleasure.Claudel’s catalogue raisonnée in the Museum’s gift shop bears witness to an ouvre which demands much more critical attention than it appears to have received in any great volume to date and whilst this minor contribution is no more than that, it may lead at least one reader to investigate Claudel’s work further and perhaps fall in love with it as much as I have.