Reflecting on the life of Camille Claudel through Rodin’s 1884 bronze bust of the artist, Selin Genc considers her own experience of isolation and celebrates her autonomy even in the midst of lockdown.
I have a folder in which I keep important documents, tied with ribbons on all four sides. Inside are photos of my parents from when they were my age, some collages I have made that I am not yet willing to part with, and my collection of postcards. Living in uncertainty, not knowing when I may go back to my native country, I have no definite residence and am crashing at my partner’s flat. All the images I would have put up on a wall will for now remain in this folder. The knowledge that they exist, safe in this special place, gives me a sense of security. I am in liminality, yet grounded by such artefacts that foreshadow future stability.
Amongst my collection of postcards is a photo of a bust by Auguste Rodin of Camille Claudel. Sculpted in 1884, it was made only a year into their relationship. In 1884 she would have been 19 – three years younger than me. The portrayal captures an expression of aloof gloominess. It does not seem to be an anomalous moment of despair, but rather a study of temperament, of a melancholic disposition. Like Rodin’s The Thinker, there is something quite existential about Claudel’s pout. Her face is textured with impressionistic dabs left in the mould to be filled in with bronze, rendering her semblance fractured and ephemeral. She is deep in thought, regarding something profound, even if this intuition is about a daily reality. For is it not in the ordinary that the insightful find the most mystery?
Recently, I got a Mubi subscription, and was delighted to see that the 2013 film Camille Claudel 1915 was being featured. A meditative character study of Claudel, the film follows the artist during her daily life in a mental asylum across the span of three days, already two years into this involuntary confinement. She does not feel this confinement to be necessary, but the film does not make it clear whether her perception is riddled with delusions, or if she is simply unable to convince steadfast relatives of her sanity. She seems entirely lucid, and though her character has few moments of speech, Juliette Binoche’s delicate acting conveys this sensitive middle-aged woman’s unspoken thoughts. The head doctor, as in real life, tries to convince her kin that she does not necessarily need to be institutionalised. Yet she is forsaken.
Her main affliction is ennui. Having been abandoned in an institution where all other patients have developmental issues, she is able to connect neither with her fellow habitants nor the generous hearted but oblivious nuns. Her autonomy is limited. Though she had been living a rather secluded life before the sanatorium, it had been of a very different character to that experienced in this institution.
Women being accused of insanity seems to be a consistent trend throughout the history of the logocentric and phallocentric West. Its first critical literary unearthing, the madwoman in the attic trope, has troubled me ever since I was 15 when I read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The first wife of Edward Rochester, Bertha Mason, is allegedly mentally ill and violent. Mr. Rochester has thus taken the initiative to stow her away in the attic, where she spends night and day, year after year, in isolation. I wondered, what does she do up there all day? If she were really mentally deranged, surely being locked up could not be a viable solution for easing her pain. Though cared for in bare essentials such as food and shelter, so nullified, expunged from any meaningful social interaction, she is better off dead. Thankfully, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea challenges this initial narrative splendidly, offering an alternative telling of Bertha’s story. Rhys uses the presentation of this previously shushed voice as a device to question the power dynamics at play in Brontë’s original narrative. The notions of sanity and insanity being suspect themselves, gendered and colonial contexts are up for inspection.
Being locked away without any knowledge or hope as to when one might be returned to society and granted autonomy is soul crushing, whether really mad or not, and regardless of an ontological scrutiny of such labels. Being rendered voiceless, pushed to the peripheries of social life, one becomes a spectre, life a living purgatory. In the end of Camille Claudel 1915, before the rolling of the credits, the postscript states that Claudel remained in the same asylum for another 29 years, to her very last day. Thus the film, depicting only two years into this 30 year course, ends on a very grievous note. Her desperation and fear at being trapped for good is completely justified. The worst possible outcome is impending.
Being in isolation for the past few months has led me to nearly assume parallels in how I am feeling and how she must have felt. Yet an attempt at such a comparison only goes to show that I could have no idea whatsoever of what it had really been like for her. Robbed of her freedom, her craft, her dignity, what was day-to-day life like for Camille Claudel? What dreams did she see? How did she perceive time, and the future? Did she anticipate things? Were her days distinguishable from one another? What habits had she formed? What became the meaning of life? How does one mentally cope when existence itself has become stagnation? Related questions on life, and my fleeting role in it, have been intrusively popping up in my mind in these days of isolation. If a stationary pace of life for a few months is sufficient in kindling a minor crisis, it is beyond my grasp how this would translate to a span of 30 years.
Under the novel conditions of quarantine, new patterns of life and thought unfold. Routine and habit have taken on a new meaning, and movement is becoming increasingly ritualistic, increasingly an end in itself. Time stretches and shrivels. Some occurrences are amplified whereas others just blend into the continuous fabric of the day. A pigeon making its nest in our back garden will infatuate me, while I am simultaneously meditating on large life decisions that I now have enough space to reflect on. It feels like John Cage’s composition 4’33’’. Though silence seems to be the central actor, there is an implicit, hidden agent: the rustle and bustle of what is usually deemed noise. What are usually seen as the residual elements of life now have the spotlight. But noise here is defined dialectically, against the background of silence, or organised sounds such as music. The noise I am coming to appreciate is contrasted with the days when things will not be like this: when we will be allowed to sit on planes, visit friends in their flats, go to the gym, and have parties… This was not the case for Camille Claudel. The noise was all she was allowed to appreciate. It was all she had. And I wonder, what did she make out of it?
Despite the limitations imposed because of the current global crisis, I have autonomy, and I would like to honour this.
About Selin Genc
Based in Edinburgh and Istanbul, Selin Genc is an art history student entering the final year of her BA in the University of Edinburgh. She also has her own art practice, in which she employs multimedia techniques informed by a feminist surrealist trajectory. Selin aspires to continue her studies in the area of Social Anthropology. Inspired by the meeting point of the magical and the mundane, the domestic and the esoteric, she is drawn by the alternative histories of ordinary things. Her online portfolio can be found here: https://selingenc-art.wixsite.com/portfolio. She also runs a history of art blog on instagram @ladyhamiltonasbacchante.
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.