Asserting creativity, breaking barriers
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Through the ages, art has displayed a gender bias against women. Today women express their personality and talent; global magazines honour the 100 most powerful women from different disciplines. Such acknowledgment of merit didn't always happen so easily. Let me take you to 19th century Western Europe that experienced incredible waves of original art and culture. In my observation, the 1826 invention of photography by French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce radically changed the idea of metaphor. Till then artists were compelled to depict realism. Photographic reproduction suddenly made artistic realism redundant. This jolt liberated the non-conformists among artists. Van Gogh was the first example of those who unconsciously painted from imagination. People labelled his work tache (stain) not art, and contradictions marked this period's art when painters and sculptors started to deviate from realism.
My favourite sculptress, an irrepressible genius, continued the non-conformist tradition. She started sculpting at age 12, using family and domestic helps as models. Her control over clay modelling was astounding. Recognising her talent, her father, a state administrator, sent his family to Paris so she could be trained in sculpture. Ecole des Beaux Arts, the famous Parisian art school where I too have studied, did not allow women into their precincts then. Women as nude models could sit for hours inspiring male artists, but the opposite was totally unimaginable. I've never understood men's scepticism in barring women from artistic activities where feminine qualities of rationality, patience, and aesthetics would fit beautifully. Artemisia Gentileschi in the 17th century was among the first women that the male-dominated art world acknowledged. However, many of her paintings got attributed to her artist father, Orazio Gentileschi. It was only in 1960-70s that a feminist artist movement came about to establish women artists.
Ignoring taboos, this assertive sculptress sculpted the male body. Women artists then were denied nude male models on moral grounds. Her 'real life heroes' were murderers Pranzini and Troppmann, while her 'favourite heroine in real life' was Louise Michel, a French anarchist in the 1871 Paris Commune. Her attraction to Louise's struggle was because she typified disruptive ideas like demanding gender equality, professional education for girls, women's right to divorce, and abolition of prostitution.
Being of noble lineage, her mother opposed her sculpting as it was a male preserve. So she left home to train privately. By age 17 she became pupil to that era's most illustrious sculptor. He was twice her age, a known womaniser. Their fiery, scandalous affair left her parents aghast. In 15 years of besotted, wild, unpredictable togetherness, they produced their most inspired sculptures even as they competed artistically. When she became pregnant, she wanted his full-fledged attention, but he hesitated to leave his long-term mistress. So without telling him, she aborted, and permanently singed their relationship. Thereafter she submerged into paranoia, believing he was persecuting her. But her expressive work continued to get commissions. A gallery owner sought her out to exhibit her modelled bodies. Her father protected and financed her. When he died, her mother and brother packed her off to a mental asylum in 1913.
Neither of the two lovers could forget their tempestuous love affair. Her most poetic sculpture, 'Waltzing Couple', symbolised this passion. Being the first to experiment with 'sketching from life', she brought sculpture inside the home. She worked on new materials like onyx and made miniatures called 'The Wave' and 'The Gossips'.
This compelling, tragic narrative belongs to Camille Claudel. Being the first woman who broke rules, she proved that a woman can be a great sculptor. She was the beautiful muse and paramour to Auguste Rodin (her master), the most important sculptor of modern times, his hallmark sculpture being 'Thinker'. So haunted was he by her memory that in a feverish state before his death, he'd asked to see her. Reine-Marie Paris, grand-daughter of Camille's brother Paul Claudel, defied family taboos and revealed, from Camille's letters to Paul, that her family had allowed Camille to fade away among madwomen. They ignored doctors' suggestions that she return to her family. Camille never did sculpt again in her last 30 years in the asylum. She died in 1943 at age 78. Camille exemplifies an artist's rebelliousness and talent, but the die was cast against her. No one cared or dared to rescue her from obsessive delusions, not even her lover Rodin who died in 1917, the brother she doted upon, nor the mother who hated her. In her paranoia, she destroyed most of her sculptures, only 90 masterpieces were later found. Camille fought for women's rights and has since gained recognition as a breakthrough sculptress of the 20th century. I'll be continuing to write about a few women's courage that brought real change towards achieving gender equality.
Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at www.shiningconsulting.com