Camille Claudel’s Les Causeuses: The Subject of Lack and the Leaning Tree of Destiny

May 23rd, 2020  |  Published in May 2020

Unfortunately, albeit perhaps tethered to imposed historical responsibility, most introductions to Camille Claudel and her oeuvre are steeped in biographical detail that inevitably draws  in her partner Rodin’s shadow. I am afraid that I, too, have lapsed into entertaining this impulse if only to make it an object of critique. Although “Rodin’s mistress,” “Rodin’s assistant” or “Rodin’s lover” are more often employed when describing Claudel then “Rodin’s counterpart” or, even less often, “Rodin’s protégée,” I hope to draw our attention to a sculpture that can by no means be associated with Rodin, neither in style nor subject-matter. Claudel’s alleged mental illness and her confinement from age fifty to her death thirty years after have become a thing of lore—given the mythos blanketing the last three decades of her life, Bruno Dumont’s film, Camille Claudel 1915, is undoubtedly the most compassionate depiction of her time spent at the Montdevergues asylum, with Juliette Binoche playing the eponymous Claudel; the film’s treatment shines a light on Camille’s bourgeois family, who were scandalized by Claudel’s extra-marital tryst with Rodin and her general bohemian inclinations. Claudel’s liveliness and nonconformist persuasions undoubtedly informed the trajectory of her work up until L’Âge Mûr [The Mature Age] (plaster: 1894-5; cast: 1902), a piece depicting a man betaken by death’s temptation, leaving his youth and his passions; this piece (originally exhibited in plaster in 1899) saw her breakage from Rodin altogether, who was scandalized by it (why, exactly, remains a mystery which art historians continue to contemplate). Yet the breakage can be traced to an earlier work, one haunted by spatial haecceities.

It is with Les Causeuses [The Gossips] (1897) that we see Claudel stepping into a style thoroughly her own. The story goes that after Rodin and Claudel’s romantic indulgence lapsed, Claudel wished to liberate herself entirely from Rodin’s aesthetic influence, which she considered to have been entirely too intrusive and have permeated her earlier works. In turn, Claudel turned her attention towards intimacy and intimist scenes which, prior to Claudel’s intervention, had been relegated exclusively to the domain of painting. With the works of this period, and particularly with Les Causeuses, we see a distinctive and complex engagement with features of femininity—hair, fingernails and shoulders are accentuated, immersed with the use of contrasting and difficult materials such as onyx marble. Claudel’s engagement with polychromy—works from this period feature an admixture of stone and bronze—show that Claudel was in artistic discourse with Charles Cordier and with other contemporaries’ interest in playing with color.

However, unlike other works made during the period of this breakage such as La Vague [The Wave] (1897), Les Causeuses’ influences cannot be quilted to Japonisme (despite its vague and suggestive influence, which some commentators have arguably overemphasized) or the stylings of Art Nouveau. With Les Causeuses, we see four women whose bodies form a circle, their heads closely tilted together as expressive gestures—outspread limbs and dancing fingers—decorate their assumed discussion. Three of the depicted women seem to be listening to the words of the fourth, the director of the group. In an 1893 letter to her brother, the diplomat and poet Paul Claudel,[1] Claudel mentions a small group of three women listening to another, seated behind a screen; in this same letter, Camille Claudel remarks that “I have lots of new ideas that would please you enormously [….] You see it is not at all Rodin, and it is dressed […]”[2] This letter, where she details having witnessed a group of women chatting in a train carriage, indicates Claudel’s future artistic prospects: further veering from the large-scale sculptures that colored her apprenticeship with Rodin.

Some have commented that the shape and formation of the women’s grouping underscores Claudel’s paranoiac-psychosis, given the hefty weightiness of the walls, yet I endorse a different hermeneutic venture, one that seeks to elide the temptation to retrofit such a reading stilted solely on biography. What Les Causeuses does share with other works from this period of Claudel’s output, such as Le Vague, is the use of a protuberant outgrowth. This is a tendency that seems to have originally began with the tree stumps and structural counterbalance supports that served as buttresses for her prior contrapposto works, made when Claudel was still a student of Rodin’s. Nonetheless, whereas with La Vague this structural support is clearly a wave—and an elaborate ornamental decoration, at that—in the case of Les Causeuses it suggests an ambiguous screen-like wall. This wall serves an extra-representational function, as it prods us forth into an indoor scene of shared intimacy, one where the four women are crouched over a table, their arched backs inclining together like four waves meeting at an axis. There are, in fact, two walls which meet at a sharp right angle, forming a pocketed corner entirely discreet and hidden from any observer’s purvey. This pocket, a supplement of spatial lack, is partially constructed by the women’s couched figure—their formation of an assemblage—such that there  is a cluster of space which, despite our best attempts, we simply cannot intervene upon.

Borrowing from the parlance of Lacanian psychoanalysis, we may note here that the lack becomes a structuring structure, localizing the subject-of-lack as constitutive of the discourse, a virtual operator foreclosed from the actuality of knowledge. The women’s chatter and their structural figuration allots the formation of a grand univocal assemblage and suggests an overcompensation for the lack—a repression of lack—and a mechanism for compensating for the absence of the object that figures into the “utopic object.” This “utopic object”—the formation of the assemblage equally composed of four women as their virtual chatter, or “gossip”—is introduced into the semiological order of the signifier as a substitute and marker for the real “Thing” (in this case, verbal, aural discussion between the women and our being witness to it), an element or part which cannot be assimilated to knowledge. So what we have is the enclosure fomenting a suture-effect: it is not a positive element but, instead, a vanishing point that conceals the structuring operation which produced it (the screen(s), women, their limbs, etc.) and is surrounded by a battery of imaginary representations as their “quilting point” (point de capiton). These imaginary representations are not merely the women’s gossiping but our supposed understanding of their being women living in the repressed patriarchal society that was late 19th-century France, such that they have retreated into the cavernous safety of this isolated room. This is what gives Camille Claudel’s work such vigor and critical importance, as overdetermination does not stand for the way in which an all‐encompassing Whole determines the interplay of its parts; rather, the overdetermination of lack indexes the way a part of the Whole emerges as a self‐relating One, which overdetermines the network of its relations with others. In this case that lack and its counterfactual self-relating One is configured by the two walls and the pocket foreclosed from our view. Smuggling in signification, our “imaginary” operations attempt to stitch the wound of real lack.[3]

Thus we have the paradoxical object of our perception—but to call it an “object” suggests autonomy. Much like the gaze of the camera would direct our eyes towards pockets of supplementation and intended discretion, distinctly making the case for what should be perceived and what is an inherent lack (that which is off-screen, a supplementation by way of embodied participation with the object of authorial reception), with this enclosure we see Claudel’s construction of a proto-filmic “screen” that determines the network and texture of representational relation. Physical organization, by way of foreclosure, allots the functional organization of multiplicity, and the free singularities of gestures—arched backs, table legs and the marble ground slipping into one ensemble—which characterize the limits of our perception’s interference. No matter how hard we will try and whichever angles of perception we may assume, we will never be able to interfere or directly interface with this lack. Thus, all readings that profess finality must recognize that they are but supplemental, appendaging a logic that inherently accepts the limits of its verity. In turn, the critical and markedly feminist lesson we can learn from Camille Claudel’s Les Causeuses is the dovetailing of subjectivity and structuring in any rendered interpretation of lack, that trying to illuminate a pocket of foreclosure turns its head away from an Outside interpretation. This means that any hermeneutic must come to terms with its restorative silence (today, perhaps the ulterior lesson of feminism is that there is no grand meta-narrative of liberatory definitiveness, as conceptions of feminism and the “being” of womanhood is malleable and anchored to the historical epoch from which it is produced).

Camille Claudel L’âge mûr

Camille Claudel, despite now being well recognized and lauded, seems far too often to fall prey to art historical grand narratives that do violence upon this foreclosure by way of retrofitting biography. This is ironic indeed, for the conceptual category of the “lack” occupied so much of her later work—these structures began as meager contrapposto supports configuring and bolstering Rodin’s sculptural constructions and their vast bodies to eventually co-opting the dimensional expanse that those very bodies once occupied. It is tempting to allegorize these supportive structures—that Claudel referred to the support-stand-cum-outgrowth of what would eventually feature in L’Âge Mûr (in her 1893 letter) as the “learning tree” that inscribes “destiny” is nothing if not suggestive. Thus, one may read these “leaning trees” in narrative parallel with Claudel’s own artistic trajectory—when these supports eventually broke free, as in Les Causeuses’ angled screen, La Vague’s prodigious wave and L’Âge Mûr’s abstracted tree, there is the suggestion of autonomy and liberation. But, at once, the support is equally structured by that which populates the syntactic-deductive order that conditions the production of its ulterior structure—not simply physically but also that which is virtual and assumed (the act of the depicted gossip, in-itself). Rather than incessantly allegorizing, let us turn to what these structures consistently suggest—the constitution of any operational space or structure as “closed” or “fixed” suggests that it can separate itself from and yet remain relative to ideology, not lingering as a foreclosed exception, but giving space with which to understand how these margins are constructed.

–Ekin Erkan

[1] Angelo Caranfa’s book Camille Claudel: A Sculpture of Interior Solitude analyzes the relationship between Camille Claudel’s sculptural works and Paul Claudel’s poetry, forming a bricolage around concepts of sensation, cognition and signification. Caranfa emphasizes an aesthetic theory of homogeneity by way of reference, a reading suggestive of Gilles Deleuze’s machine ontology or of Gilbert Simondon’s aesthetic theory of referential ensemble. (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1999), pp. 86-89

[2] Camille Claudel, Correspondance, ed. Anne Rivière and Bruno Gaudichon (Paris: Gallimard, 2003), p. 96. The letter goes on to detail further hopes for projects that explore the themes of intimacy and the notion of the group-as-assemblage:

“Je suis toujours attelée à mon groupe de trois je vais mettre un arbre penché qui exprimera la destinée; j’ai beaucoup d’idées nouvelles qui te plairaient énormément, tu serais tout à fait enthousiasmé.”

(“I’m still harnessed to my group of three and I’m going to put a leaning tree that will express destiny; I have a lot of new ideas that you would like very much, you’d be very enthusiastic.”)

The group of “three” that she mentions seems to foreshadow the three figures that would populate L’Âge Mûr, and the tree “of destiny” Claudel describes became something more akin to the abstract pedestal. All translations are original. Added emphasis.

[3] Originally, discourse re: the suture in psychoanalysis was limited to the terrain of scientific discourse but I argue that this can be readily applied to signifying spatiality writ large, as they, in similar fashion, orient a foreclosure: “[….] the lack of a lack is also a lack. Double negation confers a positivity to its field, but at the periphery of this field one must acknowledge the structure that makes it possible, and from which its development is nevertheless not independent. The lack of the lack leaves open in every scientific discourse the place of the miscognition, and of the ideology that accompanies it, without being intrinsic to it: a scientific discourse as such includes no utopic element. We would need to envisage two superposed spaces, without quilting point [point de capiton], without slippage (lapsus) from the one to the other. The closure proper to science therefore operates a redistribution between a closed field, on the one hand, of which one perceives no limit if one considers it from the inside, and a foreclosed space on the other. Foreclosure is the other side of closure. [103] This term will suffice to indicate that every science is structured like a psychosis: the foreclosed returns under the form of the impossible.” See: Jacques-Alain Miller, “Action of the Structure” trans. Christian Kerslake, rev. Peter Hallward. In Concept and Form, volume I: Key Texts from the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, ed. Peter Hallward and Knox Peden (London: Verso 2012), p. 80.

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