AVIGNON, France — Camille Claudel was an incredible sculptor, but the story of her life is devastating. Born in 1864 into a relatively well-off family in northern France, Claudel began studying sculpture when she was 17. A few years later, Rodin became her teacher, and although he was 24 years her elder, the two fell into an intense affair (Rodin was cheating on Rose Beuret, his lifelong partner) that included a pregnancy and abortion. In 1898, they stopped seeing each other. Claudel began successfully exhibiting and selling her work, but not too long after, she also became withdrawn and paranoid, possibly schizophrenic. She destroyed many of her sculptures.
On March 10, 1913, her brother, the poet Paul Claudel, had her committed to a psychiatric hospital. She was moved the next year to the Montdevergues Asylum near Avignon and remained there, against her will, for 29 years. The doctors repeatedly told her mother and brother that Claudel could, even should, return home. They refused. They restricted her correspondence to only her brother. She died in that asylum in 1943 and was buried in a mass grave. Her bones were never found. (The recently released film Camille Claudel 1915, starring Juliette Binoche, captures the trauma of her imprisonment.)
Pages of that correspondence, as well as Claudel’s medical records, are currently on display at the Collection Lambert in Avignon, France. There is the letter her mother wrote, limiting whom Claudel could write to and receive letters from. There is a note from an art academy requesting that, in order to keep receiving a grant to help pay for Claudel’s institutionalization, Montdevergues please confirm every few months that she’s still alive. Camille Claudel was born in the wrong century. A pioneer who was left behind, she became a forgotten woman. In many ways, she remains a forgotten artist today.
The exhibition at the Collection Lambert, which also occupies a wing of the Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) down the street, seeks to revive her. Titled Les Papesses and curated by Collection Lambert Director Éric Mézil, the show anoints five female popes — popesses, if you will — of modern and contemporary art: Camille Claudel, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Jana Sterbak, and Berlinde de Bruyckere. And it does a fantastic job of turning visitors into believers.
The whole show is excellent, but the part of the exhibition that takes over a chapel and a few nearby rooms at the Popes’ Palace is one of the most powerful group arrangements of art I’ve ever seen. What’s so stunning is the way these womens’ work fits perfectly in the setting. At the outset, it may seem anachronous — art that’s so bound up with the experience of being a woman on display in a place that was practically a breeding ground for patriarchy. But this, of course, is exactly why it works. To see these five womens’ masterful artworks not only fill but steal the spotlight from the palace, which was built to induce maximum awe, is unbelievably satisfying. (Bonus: Paul Claudel was devoutly Catholic.)
It’s not just a revenge fantasy, either; both thematically and formally, the works on display resonate eerily well with their setting. A giant Louise Bourgeois spider dominates the vast chapel, the shape of its spindly legs echoing the vaulted ceilings, while across the room, her two-handed cross seems tailor-made for the altar at which it stands. Berlinde de Bruyckere’s fleshy, ruddy sculptures, which alternate between looking like pieces of human bodies and slabs of meat, seem to call up ghosts of martyrs, and of the palace’s ancient torture chamber.
Camille Claudel’s dark bronze sculptures take the opposite tack, lending their subjects a quiet dignity and humanity. A series of beautifully surreal tapestries by Kiki Smith occupy an empty room just upstairs from the main chapel, their form harkening back to medieval times. And back downstairs in the main chapel, Jana Sterback stands naked in a video and lights her hair on fire. Is she mad or sanely reacting to the oppression of a culture and church that systematically oppress women — or, like Claudel, is she perhaps a bit of both?
Mixed in with the women’s work are relics and secular artifacts from private and the palace’s collections. They throw the relevance of the contemporary and modern artworks into sharp relief. Models of hands sit alongside a sculpture of one by Claudel, and near that, a twisting pair of feet by de Bruyckere. Many of the relics are enclosed in glass vitrines, positioning the body, particularly a woman’s, as specimen, as object to be examined and/or torn apart at will. These ideas run like constant currents through Claudel’s, Bourgeois’s, Smith’s, Sterbak’s, and de Bruyckere’s work. At the Collection Lambert, a 17th-century miniature anatomical maternity model is laid out in a case; on the wall nearby hangs a 20-painting series by Bourgeois of what look like a man and a pregnant woman, the outlines of their bodies smudged and stained in pink.
Devoid of the religious setting and hung instead in a modish white-walled art space, the portion of Les Papesses at Collection Lambert loses a bit of its edge. But the conversation continues, now between the artworks themselves, as shapes and forms and ideas recur continually, like a long piece of thread picked up and stitched into different pieces by various artists. Corner after corner, room after room, my brain couldn’t stop seeing and making connections: the way Jana Sterbak’s “Hot Crown,” a metal sculpture of a crown that heats up and glows when viewers approach, could double as a kind of wry torture instrument for the writhing female bodies sculpted by Bourgeois and de Bruyckere; the way those writhing bodies seemed to foreshadow Kiki Smith’s “Born,” in which a full-size woman comes out of a deer; the way Smith’s cool, classically inflected sculptures are a surreal twist on Claudel’s bronze emotion.
The only misstep in the entire exhibition is the placement of a whole chunk of Smith’s work on its own, at the end. At least the last five rooms of the show are devoted solely to Smith, and although the art is very good, it disrupts the brilliant balance that Mézil achieves throughout the rest of the show. Each of these artists is supremely talented and would benefit from an in-depth solo presentation, but what makes Les Papesses so stunning is what happens when they’re brought together.
Les Papesses continues at the Palais des Papes (Place du Palais, Avignon, France) and the Collection Lambert (5 Rue Violette, Avignon, France) through November 11.