I have spent this morning preparing to facilitate a discussion around the film Camille Claudel 1915. This is an informal event that takes place at Chapter in Cardiff, after a particular film linked to art, and is a great way for people from anywhere to come together to have a chat.
But sometimes, some films really resonate with me, and this one has got under my skin. It touches a few of my buttons – around women in art, invisibility and being seen; about having a voice and being silenced. These things are both of interest to me in a personal sense and also an academic one. Way back in 1996 I did an MA in Feminism and the Visual Arts at University of Leeds with Griselda Pollock, looking at the nature and status of women in culture. I chose that course because at the time, I was making work as an artist, and felt the need to contextualize what I was happening within my practice. Ironically, after delivering a show as the culmination of the MA, I haven’t made any work since. Today that creativity and passion finds its driver through working with contemporary art and audiences, directly on the ground, affecting change, through my agency lightsgoingon.
To get to that point – where I am today – meant a transition for me a few years ago into becoming more visible – by writing, speaking, articulating to others thoughts, ideas and knowledge about contemporary art. To find courage to be out there took a bit of work on my part; and is now something I coach others in.
So, here is this film, that depicts a moment in time when Camille Claudel is incarcerated in an asylum, just outside Avignon, such a beautiful setting. She has a room of her own, able to write and draw. But it is a prison, a prison of the mind. She has no power in any way at all to shape her life, and her life was that of a creative human being, with her own studio. What she did do was have an affair with Rodin; transgressing into a sexual arena, which her mother and brother did not approve of. She is put inside an asylum and labeled paranoid – about Rodin trying to poison her, about her former tutor, Boucher, and about the art world in general. Hysterical, obsessive, mad – Freud and others had argued in 1910 that women displayed symptoms of hysteria on acting out a sexual impulse. They have to be repressed.
Until Freud, it was believed that hysteria came about though the lack of conception and motherhood. Freud reverses this; and it becomes a disease of women. Because a woman has no power, her voice functions as hysterical, ‘possessed’ by sexual frustration. In this case, for Claudel, it is about her repressed creativity, but that is never acknowledged.
The other key word here is melancholy. At the turn of the century, men could claim male lovesickness as a form of melancholy—a state of mind associated with creativity, interiority, and intellect—and the female version is considered a disorder of the womb.
There are a number of books published about famous creative couples – Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner; Man Ray and Lee Miller; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I used to have one called Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership – looking on my bookshelves, I can’t find it. Perhaps I threw it out after I finished the MA.
Camille Claudel remained locked up, despite doctors’ reports that she had recovered, until her death in 1943. Terrified of never being set free, Claudel wrote to her brother saying: “The dream that was my life has become a nightmare.”