In “The Lady of Shallot” Tennyson tells us that a woman must chose between art and love. She cannot have both – love will destroy the art. In some respects, he is correct, or at least was correct, considering that a woman would have duties that needed to be done. And yet, in other respects he was wrong. It isn’t love that destroys a woman’s art but lust – and usually not her.
This year (2017), Hollywood has been rocked by various scandals, the widest spread apparently that of Harvey Weinstein. What many have pointed out, including in places like the New York Times, is the art that we have missed and the art that has been changed. The Times dealt on the career of Annabella Sciorra after her rape by Weinstein. Salma Hayek wrote a powerful piece about how the filming of Frida was compromised and changed by Weinstein, in particular how full-frontal nudity was done
because otherwise Weinstein threatened to kill the filming – tell me how that isn’t rape?
Yet, it seems such things have been occurring for so long. I’m not just talking about the treatment of Garland, Monroe, and the old studio stable system, but further back than that. Delbee address the question head on in her autobiographical novel about Camille Claudel.
Claudel had the misfortune to be a woman and an artist at time when women as artist weren’t quite valued in the way they should have been – in other words as artists first. She eventually becomes the student, inspiration, and lover of Rodin – though student might not be a fully accurate term. Yet what Delbee captures and dwells upon his Claudel’s outsider position as outsider. She is not a conventional or modest woman, she is an artist and not a model, she is a woman student and not male one. She is Rodin’s model, inspiration, mistress, and student. She both is and is not. It is hardly surprising that she rages.
It is something that Rodin does not have to face, as he does not have to face the question of whether his art is really his art as opposed to his master’s.
Delbee’s narrative is not exactly linear for the chapters alternate with letters from an alyssum, where Claudel spends part of her life. It is a quasi-channeling of Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper, and one wonders what Gilman would’ve thought of both Claudel and today’s #MeToo movement.
There is magic and strength in Delbee’s writing and she carries you ago. Claudel is not a passive victim, and if she is a victim, it is of society and the demons in her own mind.