On New Year’s Eve 2005 I got to spend the day looking at art by Camille Claudel which was then in Detroit. Almost exactly eight years later, I got to spend part of a day looking at Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes in Chicago. Both women, I believe, are artists who surpassed their masters, Claudel eclipsing Rodin;s talent; Gentileschi her father’s, although I know that, at least for the former, I hold a minority opinion.
During the eight intervening years between exhibits I started a scrap of an article on the two women which began something along the lines of, “If I could correct two misconceptions of my students and others they are that Artemesia Gentileschi painted Judith Beheading Holofernes because she was raped by her father’s assistant, Tassi, and that Paul Claudel was a good big brother to his sister Camille. I suppose there is a third misconception and that is that Berthe Morisot is no less good a painter than many male contemporaries.”
I’ve never had the kind of time to put to the article I felt it required, but I was nudged into thinking about it again by seeing Gentileschi’s painting and also by my relief that the Art Institute of Chicago didn’t offer a simplistic explanation for the painting’s existence. In fact, the exhibit pointed out what a common subject Judith and Holofernes was and how numerous artists had taken up the story. It also noted that Gentileschi had dealt with sexual violence but it did not attribute this image by Gentileschi–who had painted strong female subjects before her rape–to an exacting of revenge on her rapist or a cathartic cure particularly galling interpretations to be sure since nowhere did I ever read an article that claimed that because Caravaggio had been raped he painted Judith Beheading Holofernes. Given Caravaggio’s personal life, that interpretation might actually have made more sense. But as I say, nowhere have I ever seen it trotted out.
Eight years ago, I left the Claudel-Rodin exhibit spluttering invective and highly irritated because the sexism of the exhibit was so blatant, and because the mindless repetition of old, reiterated information easily contrary to the facts was so unabashed. There, as you walked through one room–and I promise you I do not exaggerate–filled with Claudel works, partial works, reconfigured works, the exhibit’s placards claimed that all of this work was derivative and was all evidence of Claudel’s declining imagination, loss of her gift, simple repetition of earlier work for an artist who had already peaked, and other detritus cum knowledge. A mere room later–truly a stepping over the doorway away–was a room of Rodin’s works, partial works, reconfigured works, derivative works, with placards making bold and must-be-true-assertions about creativity since we’re talking about a MAN here. With no seeming awareness of what had just been so peremptorily stated about Claudel’s work, the placards in Rodin’s room asserted that these repetitive pieces and reconfigured images were evidence of Rodin’s genius and increasing creativity. I swear to you–all noted as fact without the slightest blush. This, of course, was entirely consistent with the the exhibit never once touching on age or, more importantly gender, as factors in each’s artistic trajectory, instead noting Rodin’s rise to fame, and Claudel’s struggle to make it were just further evidence of his greatness and her hanger-on status. Let this not be understood to be a rejection of Rodin’s work by any means; I’m a huge Rodin fan. Huge. But, as proof a Claudel’s lack of talent and his genius, these are cherry picked and slim reeds on which to hang the such arguments, and frankly, also just bad scholarship.
Looking at Claudel’s La Valse (The Waltz) and Rodin’s Le Baiser alone you can’t help but see that Claudel was at least as gifted as Rodin, and as I say earlier, to my mind had clearly surpassed the master. We know Rodin signed his name to some of her works. We also know that it was not an uncommon practice for master artists to do this to their students’ work. True enough, but only their good students and often not their female ones (since so few had female apprentices). I read this as a sign of Rodin’s recognition that this particular student–one with whom he was sleeping–was more than just another conquest and cheap labor source, but was an artist with both talent and youth, gifts he must have envied and wished to control. Without denying their mutual attraction, people assume that Claudel was sleeping with Rodin to get what she could from him artistically, but frankly their story might just as easily be read the other way around.
Then there is Claudel’s prig of a brother who had her committed. Did she have issues that needed attention? Sure. Do we know the extent of their severity and to what extent they were simply a source of embarrassment to others? Do we know if they merited thirty years in an asylum with no permission to ever engage in art again? Do we really think gender, double standards, and a stick up Paul Claudel’s nether hind area weren’t all at play here? We think no such thing. Yet, to make us feel better about the tragedy that was Camille Claudel’s by inspiring jealously and passionate feeling in both lover and brother, the museum told us that Paul Claudel remained Camille’s confidant for the rest of her life; for three decades she was not allowed to create art, and since her contact with other people outside the asylum was limited, it seems a bit of a promotion for Paul Claudel to be deemed “closest confidant,” but if the museum plaque says it…
After eight years, it all still rankles. But after eight years, I was pleased that I didn’t have to walk away from the seeing Gentileschi’s image with the usual interpretive tripe about her creation of Judith Slaying Holofernes. Updated scholarship pays off. So does going to see art at year’s end!