Feminist icon's works up for auction

PARIS • She destroyed much of her work before she was confined to a psychiatric hospital in 1913.

This week, an "unprecedented" trove of sculptures by the brilliant but tragic French artist Camille Claudel are to go under the hammer in Paris.

Her life and tortured love affair with fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin inspired several films and plays.

Auction house Artcurial described the hoard of works in bronze, plaster and clay - that came mostly from a studio she kept in a barn next to the family home near Paris - as having an "unprecedented richness".

"This is an exceptional sale," its art department director Bruno Jaubert said. "We have a coherent collection from a flawless and rare source that's of an unprecedented richness on the French market."

By the time of her death in 1943, Claudel was all but forgotten, only for her reputation to roar back as critics hailed her lost genius in the 1980s.

The star of today's sale is a bronze of two figures locked in a passionate, pleading embrace. Called The Abandonment, it has strong echoes of her stormy private life.

The Abandonment by French artist Camille Claudel. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The statue is one of a series inspired by the Indian myth Shakuntala, the story of an overlooked wife from Hindu epic Mahabharata - from which Claudel drew parallels with her own tumultuous relationship with Rodin.

He was both her lover, boss and artistic rival. Having begun as his student and model, she quickly became his mistress. But Rodin, regarded as the "father of modern sculpture" for masterpieces such as The Thinker, never left his partner Rose Beuret.

As Claudel's star began to rise and she was pursued by composer Claude Debussy, tensions between her and Rodin deepened. She felt that she had been deceived and exploited by the older man.

Although both sculptors remain bound together in the public imagination, Claudel's stock has risen sharply in recent decades, making her one of the most expensive female artists ever.

With comparatively few of her works surviving, the first version of her sweeping bronze The Waltz - a copy of which Debussy kept till his death - sold for US$8 million in 2013.

Artcurial said her nephew Jacques de Massary acquired The Abandonment from a foundry in which it was cast years after Claudel had conceived it. It is expected to fetch at least US$940,000 (S$1.3 million).

The auction also includes two clay studies for marbles and bronzes on the same Shakuntala theme, one of which recently sold for a six-figure sum. The artist's only known pastel drawing, a large portrait of her little sister Louise, will also go under the hammer with an estimate of €60,000 (S$96,300).

Claudel became a feminist icon as her reputation revived, particularly after an eponymous French biopic - with actress Isabelle Adjani playing her - was nominated for two Oscars in 1989.

The fact that her family managed to hold on to The Abandonment for so long adds another touching layer to her legend.

Despite pleas by doctors and friends that she was sane and did not need to be in hospital, Claudel remained confined to the asylum on her family's orders until her death.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'Feminist icon's works up for auction'. Print Edition | Subscribe