Drum roll, please: Fateful Encounter has just been unveiled at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Curators have conferred this melodramatic title on the museum’s current special exhibit of more than 100 sculptures by late 19th-century French sculptors Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin. From now through Feb. 5, romance-hungry visitors from throughout the metro area can drink their fill of this bodice-ripper of a show, complete with contorted torsos, longing looks and broken hearts.
Rodin was the preeminent sculptor of late 19th-century Paris, while Claudel was a young emerging artist, just beginning to find her style. The male-dominated world of French sculpture preferred cool, idealized figures or ensembles. But both Claudel and Rodin espoused a heated, expressionistic sensibility at odds with those conventions.
This exhibition, which was co-organized by the Musée National des Beaux-arts du Québec and Musée Rodin in Paris, is comprised of marbles, bronzes and terracottas ranging in scale from diminutive to larger-than-life. Advertising for the Rodin and Claudel show includes TV spots voiced by a breathless Camille imitator (with an outrageous ooh-la-la French accent) and brochures that emphasize the "tortured love" and "shattered relationship" apparently evident in the art works. Billboards on Detroit buses compare the two sculptors to Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra. (Since neither of those legendary duos were visual artists, one wonders at the aptness of the analogy).
The show’s main assertion is that for 10 years or so, Claudel and Rodin were lovers who profoundly influenced each other’s work. This idea is certainly defensible, but the installation fails to illuminate that view. Instead, their sculptures (62 of hers, 58 of his) tend to blur together in a chaotic, claustrophobic installation that makes it difficult to differentiate one artist’s vision and accomplishments from the other.
The real question is why Claudel’s art is not presented solo, the standard format for assessing an artist’s achievement. The world has had plenty of opportunities to see Rodin’s work. Why do we need his art cluttering up the galleries? Claudel is the lost genius who deserves her own show, along with recognition in her own right.
But we all know the answer, don’t we? A show of Claudel’s work alone might not draw a blockbuster-sized audience — Camille Claudel is not yet the marketable commodity that Rodin, van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Michelangelo have become. Claudel flies right below the radar of notoriety and in order to enter public consciousness, the show’s organizers figure she needs to hitch a ride on some more famous man’s coattails.
Despite what the show’s curators might have you believe, Claudel and Rodin did not in their lifetimes present themselves as collaborators or co-exhibitors. Unlike such duos as Gilbert and George, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Christo and Jeanne Claude, or the Starn Twins (who work and exhibit as single entities), Claudel and Rodin were independent creators, rather than mutual dependents. And yet this exhibit shoehorns them together for reasons entirely foreign to their artistic practice.
As for the ‘fatefulness’ of their encounter, that too seems a misnomer. "Fateful" connotes something predetermined or out of the individual’s control. Claudel, however, made a shrewd, deliberate choice when she sought out Rodin, who was the "go-to guy" in sculpture in Paris during the late 19th century. It was sensible and smart of her to connect with him. And the mentor-student arrangement worked well for both of them — for a time. She didn’t anticipate falling in love with him, nor his too-spineless-to-leave-his-previous-mistress response.
When the two artists began to work together, she was 17 and he was 41. And, for 10 years or so, they had a pretty good run. Their love affair was an open secret in the Paris art world, complete with rumors of Claudel’s having aborted a pregnancy by Rodin. Later, she paid the price for her unconventional behavior when her mother and brother had her incarcerated in a series of asylums. They locked her away for the last 30 years of her life simply because they were embarrassed by her artistic life and behavior, considered entirely inappropriate for a woman of her class. Oddly, one of the wall plaques in the exhibition’s last room preposterously claims that Claudel’s brother Paul "came to the aid of his sister in need."
In each of the show galleries, large wall plaques are prominently displayed, reiterating the stages of Claudel and Rodin’s relationship in pulp fiction terms: "Before the Encounter," "Happy Times," "Stormy Times," "The Freeing of Camille Claudel" and finally, "He Never Loved Anyone But You." Quotations emblazoned high on the walls consistently highlight the emotional rather than the artistic rapport of the sculptors. "My soul belongs to you," declares Rodin, in one impassioned outburst. (Don’t even ask about the unctuous audio tour with gushy symphonic accompaniment.)
Aside from the Sturm und Drang theatrics, some undeniably genuine pleasures can be gleaned from Fateful Encounter. Two relatively modest spaces, one following the other, are given over to Claudel’s sensitively realized portrait heads and busts of her sister Louise, brother Paul and La Petite Chatelaine, the young daughter of an innkeeper. These are intimate and moving sculptures. Also, Claudel’s The Waltz (the signature bronze work of the show reproduced on all publicity materials), with its mobile, merging bodies and fluid draperies, reveals her singular ability to out-baroque the Baroque. And the heart-rending anguish of her piece, The Age of Maturity, in which three nude figures — a muscular male figure (Rodin) beset by a wizened crone and a nubile, imploring young woman — soars above the biographical triangle that inspired it.
Not to be outdone, Rodin’s 10-foot high plaster of Balzac literally stops the viewer in his tracks. Rounding a blind corner into the gallery, one is momentarily stunned by the monumental presence of Balzac, the writer’s leonine head raised far above mere mortality. But the sculptor’s presence is just as strongly felt with this awesome creation.
About this piece, Claudel wrote to Rodin in 1897: "I find it very great and very beautiful and the best of all your studies of the same subject. Especially the very accentuated effect of the head … In short, I think you should expect great success with it." This trenchant comment inscribed on the gallery wall demonstrates both the acuity of Claudel’s thinking and the kind of formal assessment one would like to come across more often in this exhibit’s galleries.
In the end, one is left with nagging questions about this show’s concept and presentation, and a longing for a more discreet and distinctly defined treatment of both artists — but especially for Claudel, the under-sung participant in this swooning enterprise.
Perhaps a close-at-hand palate refresher is appropriate here: Coincidentally, a one-woman show with bite and focus has just opened at CPop Gallery, a few blocks south of the DIA on Woodward Avenue. Area painter and chanteuse Niagara presents a provocative display titled In Opium Dreams and a new book about her art, Beyond the Pale. The exhibition is a mini-retrospective of a veteran artist who is as feisty, feminist and over-the-top as Camille Claudel. Check it out.
Camille Claudel and Rodin: Fateful Encounter runs through Feb. 5, 2006 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit. For tickets, call 877-342-8497.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki and Pam Weinstein teach art history and English, respectively, at the College for Creative Studies. Neither wears bodices. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.