280 pages, Harry N. Abrams, ISBN-13: 978-0810940772
Camille Claudel: A Life by Odile Ayral-Clause is an extraordinary achievement after a decade in the making. A scholarly study of the French sculptress who was a disciple and mistress of Rodin and the subject of a popular 1989 film, Ayral-Clause’s book combines original research, vivid writing, and engaged though balanced judgment. Camille Claudel interweaves material from archival sources, unpublished letters and photographs, and an extensive range of secondary studies into a seamless narrative, all to tell the story of Claudel’s achievement and suffering, one which follows the familiar trajectory of a woman doomed by her talent and refusal to live life other than on her own terms. Without editorializing or exaggeration, Ayral-Clause takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of hope, admiration, suspense, grief and outrage.
The book’s opening chapters chronicle the adventures of an extraordinarily talented girl from the provinces coming to live in Bohemian Paris during the 1880s – with the support of her family, no less; a singular achievement in itself, that. Its central chapters focus on her friendship with her fellow young sculptress, Jesse Lipscomb, and her turbulent relationship with Auguste Rodin. They also explain the development of her personal style and include interpretive descriptions of her major works, enriched with dozens of striking photographs. The final third of the book reads as a classic tragedy, beginning with the onset of mental illness and climaxing with an unforgettable account of Claudel being dragged off to an insane asylum at the insistence of her mother and brother at the moment that her protective father died – a moment which coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. The last few chapters, detailing her fruitless efforts to escape the horrendous conditions of her 30-year-long imprisonment, show how a strong family incapable of dealing with the mental illness of one of its members degenerates into a network of cruelty and betrayal.
In addition to biography and art criticism, Ayral-Clause’s book provides a 60-year survey of French social history that deals with politics, religion, gender and the economics of government-supported art. At the levels of state, family and individual, it delivers instructive parables about the workings of vanity, lust, bigotry, and greed, and among others, it paints memorable portraits of the two power players in Camille Claudel’s life: Rodin, the most celebrated artist of his generation, and her brother, Paul Claudel, a lionized writer and diplomat, revealing both “great men” as mere mortals after all.