Camille Claudel, an Unromantic Reality

Until recently the life and work of French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) has been largely overshadowed by her much celebrated partner and fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin.  As Rodin’s lover, Claudel has often simply been reduced to an artist’s muse, a beautiful and tragic backdrop to the life of one of the art world’s greatest masters.

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(Camille Claudel c. 1884)

Inscribed into Western art history is the ideal of the artist as the lone male genius. In contrast to the genius of men, the artist’s muse is widely perceived as female. The artist commands the active role in this relationship. The muse is the passive decorative object on to which he may project his deepest desires, fantasies and fears. Picasso’s muse, for example, was famously Dora Maar, an artist in her own right, yet known more for her association with the painter than for her own work.

Camille Claudel, like Dora Maar, is often viewed through the lens of her lover’s perceived genius. Rodin was a much more prolific sculptor than Claudel, but it is believed he was enabled in this task by the help of his younger lover. The role of the muse is often to provide sexual, emotional and practical comfort, it is female sacrifice which in turn enables the work of the male heroic figure.

Many art historians now believe it was Claudel who was the more talented pioneer of the two however.

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(Camille Claudel in the studio, c.1896)

Claudel met Rodin at his workshop at the age of nineteen; he was twenty four years older and also married. Rodin would not leave his wife for Claudel, aiming to keep both women in his life. The male sculptor was a known womanizer, a reputation celebrated in the mythology of the male artist. Such a sexual affair between a much younger female student and an older male tutor is one which has been played out again and again, not only indicative of the art world however, but of the gender roles and negative power relationships of wider society.

Claudel faced many trials as a woman and as a female artist. Her talent was recognised and supported by her father but other members of her family were against Claudel’s involvement in the often scandalous art world.  As a woman in late 19th century French society, the support of her family was crucial to survival. The sculptor was also forced to have an abortion during her relationship to an increasingly unfaithful Rodin. As their relationship deteriorated, significantly Claudel’s work progressively flourished however, as she exhibited her work at the Paris Salon.

After the breakdown of the relationship, which many believed was connected to the rivalry her sculptures posed to that of her ex-lover’s, Claudel became more reclusive and obsessive about her work.  Despite her obvious talent, it was the fact that she was a woman that was a barrier to the support and funding she needed as an artist. After her father died her family also withdrew any financial aid and the artist was forced into extreme poverty. The sculptor accused Rodin of threatening to kill her and her brother is believed to have been extremely jealous of her talents. Sculpting was an expensive business and the hostility and neglect of her ex-lover, family and art world all took its toll on Claudel who was showing signs of great distress.

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(Camille Claudel, Torso of a woman squatting, 1885)

In the early years of the 20th century a form was signed by Claudel’s brother committing her in an asylum , despite the efforts of doctors who tried to tell her family it was inappropriate and that the artist was clear-headed. At this time it was common for women to be placed indefinitely in insane asylums for reasons from ‘hysteria’ to adultery, and often at the hands of male relatives who had authority over their sisters, mothers, nieces and daughters. During her incarceration the letters Claudel wrote to friends clearly showed she was lucid.

Claudel, however, was kept in the asylum for the remaining thirty years of her life. She died in 1943 and it is believed her brother did not attend her funeral.

Camille Claudel’s life was not romantically tragic, but indicative of cultural and societal persecution of women.

In recent years the work of this hugely skilled and pioneering sculptor has been more positively highlighted and the oppressive circumstances of her life dissected to create a more deservedly insightful view of Camille Claudel herself.  Her legacy is not only her work but the recognition of the life she endured as a woman, and a female artist.




Claude Cahun: Lesbian

The BBC recently commissioned an article on Claude Cahun by Aindrea Emelife that suggested she was transgender, and not the lesbian artist, photographer and activist whose work was rediscovered by feminist art historians in the 1980s. On reading the article we are reminded of the importance of context – historical, political, social, cultural – and why neglecting it can have profound ramifications on how we perceive the past and consequently, the present.

The social and political landscape into which Cahun was born is entirely relevant to her subsequent art, political activism, her expressions of sexuality  – Cahun was a lesbian – and her values, all of which must influence and inform how we approach her as an artist and a woman.

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(Claude Cahun and lesbian life-partner Marcel Moore. Both used male pseudonyms as an act of rebellion in a patriarchal society and to significantly mirror each other. Both artists often worked together)

Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in France in 1894, a fin de siècle Jewish child whose early years would be shaped by antisemitism, political and social upheaval, and then by the consequences of a devastating world war.

Three aspects of her existence would have a profound affect on her life and work as an artist; her sexuality, her race and her sex. Her work perpetually explores what it meant to be a lesbian, a Jew and a woman in a profoundly homophobic, antisemitic and misogynist culture.

Cahun began her association with the Surrealist movement in the early 1920s and both her art practice and politics reflected this.  Surrealism was a movement born out of the remains of World War I. The huge death toll, the injuries and trauma inflicted on those who survived, the loss of a generation of young men – all contributed to the sense amongst a disaffected artistic, political and philosophical youth that everything previously regarded as sacrosanct was now corrupted. The war had also done nothing to erase the pernicious anti-semitism in Europe, which had evolved at the turn of the century to consider Jews as a race to be inferior and not only the Jewish religion, a theory that would be expounded as Germany recovered from the humiliation of defeat, leading ultimately to the holocaust.

As the first ‘industrial’ war, World War I signaled to many that the great human experiment of The Enlightment had failed disastrously. Andre Breton, self-styled leader of Surrealism,  wrote that “All the institutions upon which the modern world rested -and which had just shown their worth in the First World War – were considered aberrant and scandalous to us. To begin with, it was the entire defense apparatus of society that we were attacking: the army, ‘justice’, the police, religion, psychiatric and legal medicine, and schooling”.  Added to this was the interest in the work of Sigmund Freud and his theories on the ‘unconscious mind’. Rationalism had failed humanity, now was the time for subversion and a re-imaging of society. It is no surprise that Surrealism also embraced anarchy.

However, despite its links to anarchism and its aims to deconstruct traditional values, at that time Surrealism as a movement was deeply sexually traditional with the main players being heterosexual couples. While lesbianism was tolerated, there is evidence it was (as in the case of Man Ray’s later images) regarded primarily as a performance for the men. Breton was notorious for his homophobic tirades, which sits uneasily with the Surrealist claim to be for the emancipation of human sexuality from state and religious constraints.

In fact, this reflected Parisian society’s attitude to lesbianism; considered an ‘inversion’ and an offshoot of prostitution, at worst it was regarded as a mental illness (even by Freud), yet tolerated provided it was for the pleasure of men or at least hidden from view. However, lesbians developed their own secret codes and created meeting places and it was not uncommon for women to ‘cross-dress’ at these social gatherings. The adoption of overtly masculine dress was a coded expression of lesbianism in a culture that degraded women, rather than a denial of womanhood.

Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, Paris, 1932 (5)

(Lesbian club in Paris , 1932)

In addition, constraints of gender within the art world and Surrealism meant that the female was so maligned, women who displayed less feminine and more masculine traits were more respected as artists. The archetype of mannish female artist and intellectual was alive and well and was adopted by many women seeking approval from the establishment. Indeed, Emelife herself resurrects  this archetype by writing that Cahun ’embodied the tropes of conventional masculinity’. In doing so she is in danger of suggesting that an artistic, intellectual, politically active lesbian must in reality have been more man than woman.

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(Examples of Cahun’s performances within her photographic work)

Within such a complex web of expectations and value judgements Cahun attempted to play out her anxieties and frustrations through her art, in particular, through her self-portraits. As readers of those images now we must, however,  remember three important things;

  1. Cahun made her images, not as modern ‘selfies’, but as carefully constructed and staged performance pieces. Her photography was not a casual snap-shot of her everyday life but an artistic creation informed by her cultural and historical place in the world.
  2. Cahun constructed fantastical tableaux of all manner of identities – fairies, men, women, Buddhas, weightlifters – she was not fixated on presenting herself as a man. Indeed, she reveals her naked female body without any sign of distress or self-loathing. Selecting only her ‘cross-dressing’ images is neglecting the entirety of her body of work and its complexity.
  3. Cahun’s images are accessible to anyone who has access to the internet or to a good bookshop. They have been viewed by many people, often with no understanding of the historical and artistic genealogy of the images. When they were produced by Cahun, they would have been shared with a very small group of close friends and Surrealist acquaintances. Within that closed world, Cahun would have felt safe to express aspects of her art and personality that may have remained hidden had it been known the whold world would be a potential audience.

Aindrea Emelife illustrates her article with various of Cahun’s self portraits, each of them showing a very obvious intention to ‘mask’ her true self through theatrical costume, makeup, role play and elaborate staging.


In one we see  Cahun with cropped hair, her face darkened by stage make-up and wearing a harlequin check jacket (above). She stands in front of a mirror while turning towards the lens. While  Emilife  chooses to read this as an image of ‘near death’ suffering, another reading could see this as an encaspsulation of Cahun’s whole art practice, her search for the real Claude Cahun whilst at the same time presenting herself in theatrical disguise. Ever conscious of antisemitism (which in the 1920s was gathering momentum in Europe and was hurtling toward its horrific conclusion), Cahun darkens her pale skin in a bravado acknowledgement of her ‘otherness’ as a Jewess.  Her ‘masculine’ appearance, rather than suggest transgenderism, challenges the stringent gender roles imposed on women even within the Surrealist movement. Finally, the harlequin coat is a further visual clue, pointing us to the theatricality of her performance, the stage-play at work.


(Cahun and partner Moore in intentionally ‘mirroring’ photographs, taken at the same time, as part of their artistic collaboration)

One of the dangers of ignoring context and imposing one’s contemporary vision onto the past is that it is often at the cost of historical accuracy. Historical rigour is the basis from which historians then apply interpretation and analysis. Neglecting, misrepresenting or reinventing facts not only conceals the truth but turns the historical project from one of unearthing facts to reveal the narrative to one of bending facts to fit into a desired narrative.

That desired narrative is to claim a lesbian artist as a transgender artist. Not only is this factually innaccurate, it insults the memory of a woman who took considerable risk in her life to live and love and practice her art as a lesbian. A woman who loved women and who wrote a series of monologues in 1925, Heroines, in which she pays tribute to inspirational women of art and literature.

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Claude Cahun was extraordinary, unexpected, risk-taking and original. She was not transgender. She navigated a world in which every aspect of her being – as a female artist, as a lesbian, as a Jew – was held up for scrutiny and found to be not good enough. Is it any wonder she tried on different masks and identities?






Social Realist photographers of N.E England

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and  Tish Murtha are both celebrated photographers known for (separately) documenting the lives of communities within the North East of England.

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 (Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, Girl on a Space Hopper, 1971)

Both photographers highlight the realities of Northern working class English lives in ways which range from humorous to disturbing. By recording the everyday lives of economically deprived communities, Konttinen and Murtha follow in the footsteps of such great photographers as Dorothea Lange and her documentation of poor migrants during the American Depression.

The documentary photography of Lange, Konttinen and Murtha aims to draw attention and give insights into the everyday. However, the social realism genre is also associated with social comment on the prevailing economic and political conditions. The work therefore often enables  a critical platform to view inequality within the structures of society, often focusing on the marginalised.

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(Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment series 1981)

Konttinen, who originated from Finland, studied photography in London in the 1960s,  moving to Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1969.  There she co-founded Amber Films, a film and photography collective which aimed to document and reflect working-class life in the area. Konttinen spent seven years documenting her neighbours in the working class east end of the city in which she lived, which culminated in her book Byker. The series captured a community on the brink of dispersal and drastic change, as many of the areas houses were about to be demolished making way for new housing developments. It is a view of 1970’s life which was being experienced by many working class communities across the land. 

Young woman in Mason Street, 1971.

(Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, Young woman in Mason Street, 1971)

In contrast, Murtha was born and bred in a Newcastle council house, therefore she aimed to reflect maginalised communities as an ‘insider’. Born into a family of Irish descent with nine siblings, Murtha documented life on her own doorstep and the experiences she was part of, in the impoverished west end of the city. The photographer’s work captured an era incorporating the bleak affects of Thatcher’s Britain on Northern communities. One of the photographer’s first exhibitions was called Youth Unemployment (1981), a series which was even used as a source of debate in the House of Commons. In turn, Murtha continued to use her photography to raise many social and political concerns for her home town, as well as for the country as a whole.

Youth Unemployment, Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1981

(Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment series 1981)

Both photographers highlighted a world perhaps unknown to many gallery spectators. While Konttinen affectionately focuses on an early 1970’s working class community before it was dismantled, Murtha’s work, photographed ten years later, however reflects a 1980’s community being socially and politically destroyed.

In doing so, Konttinen and Murtha have created a series of work that reflects a Northern working class social history which may be viewed with both nostalgic amusement and political concern.