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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Paris I: Arrival and the Musee Rodin

It is now time for our training in the good life in France, and what luck!  It begins at Roissy!  Lest you think this will be a post-graduate lesson in sexual submission, this is not the Chateau Roissy of Pauline Reage’s scandalous novel, but the city in which Charles De Gaulle Airport is located.  

French customs were not this bad!

We may be expecting a lesson in masochism, but the first thing we learned after a ferocious hazing at Heathrow is that we weren’t going to be body searched at De Gaulle.  In fact, after a casual inquiry into the purpose of our visit, our passports were stamped and we were free to go without the slightest inspection.  At Heathrow we had to wait two and a half hours in the biggest queue I have ever encountered--even the lines for the restrooms at Woodstock were shorter--before our immigration clerk could apologize for Her Royal Majesty’s Government’s very best efforts to prevent us from enjoying our stay in England.  Actually, we weren’t searched at Heathrow either, but we waited a long, long time for a brief but essential stamp--it was an unnecessarily frustrating conclusion to a very long flight.  While we were waiting, we encountered an elderly lady who could barely stand, and it took the collective action of a half dozen of us to get some airport official to bring her a wheel chair.   Amid much muttering that it was “not his job”, we finally got someone to re-purpose himself to find one.  “She should have waited for it at the gate!”  he kept insisting.   We thanked him nicely anyway.  Perhaps he would consider venturing out beyond the borders of “his job” again some day. 

Before leaving for this trip, I must admit that I had never mistaken the “French” as paragons of ‘customer service.’  Perhaps we were treated so much better in De Gaulle Airport because they are very much in the habit of receiving visitors.  France is the top destination in the world for foreign visitation.  With a population of 65 million, they have 80 million visitors a year!  Compare that with the US which has about 310 million citizens, and receives a meager 25 million foreign visitors per year.  Surely France has the edge in this comparison by being surrounded by a populous continent full of potential foreigner visitors, whereas the US occupies a third of its continent and is desperate not to count the tourists from south of the border who are really here looking for work as ‘visitors’.  But the French get hoards of tourists not simply because they have lots of neighbors.  We are among the legions of folks who think this small country – only the size of Texas -- holds some special key to living the good life.  And the French are still getting more visits than neighboring countries in Europe of similar size.  The moral of this story is that if you have to choose between a job at the French or the North Dakotan Conferences and Visitors Bureau, start conjugating those French verbs!

We are staying in the Montparnasse region of Paris in a huge high-rise hotel.  Our view from the 22nd floor covers Isle de la Citè, Montmartre, the Louvre, the Marais, the Jardin de Luxembourg, Hôtel des Invalids, but is cut off from a view of the Eiffel Tower by the nearby offices of Societè Generale.  It is a grand view, but it takes a little getting used to.  Except for a few of the notable exceptions I have just mentioned, the odd skyscraper, the hill of Montmartre, and the Tour Eiffel, Paris has nearly all of its buildings roughly the same height out to the Peripherique, the highway which rings the city out at the limits of its ancient wall.  Baron Haussman’s grand vision is still very much in place, even if it is fraying at the edges due to modernist inselbergs like the Pompidou Center.  The Parisian’s like change, but not too much s’il vous plait.

Paris:  The thick red line is Le Peripherique.  We stayed in 14th Arondissement.
Devil's Tower is a classic inselberg; an island of rock that contrasts with its surroundings
Parisian's don't think the Pompidou Center fits too well in the Marais, either.

I mentioned before that London had missed its chance for a thorough restructuring after the Great Fire due to royal discretion.  But during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III (1848-70), there was no such restraint, and many areas of the city were redesigned with Paris’s characteristic tree-lined boulevards and classic 5-7 story buildings.  Two story high front doors and iron railings on the windows were all the rage.  Napoleons III’s purposes were far from merely aesthetic.  After an alarming spate of revolutions, the Emperor wanted his army’s access to the city unimpeded by easily barricaded streets left over from the Middle Ages.  So only the Marais, and parts of the Left Bank and the Isle de la Cite were left with cobblestones and the close dark medieval feel of the old city. 

Classic Hausmann style from the boulevard named in his honor. Galleries La Faytette is the famous French department store.

However the enchantment of Paris does not depend on dark cobbled streets and half-timbered houses.  We are alone in the city for a couple of days before our traveling companions arrive.  We meet old friends from Ann Arbor who relocated to France twenty years ago and catch up, reeling from the fact that the kid we last saw at age seven is taking his bacc’s and his older brother has already graduated from Oxford!  That certainly makes time appear fleeting no matter how eternal the charm of the city.

After a problem trying to use Le Metro in the jammed Gare Montparnasse, we mostly walk around the newer parts of the Left Bank.  We walk to Les Invalides, then to the Ècole Militare, and have lunch with our friend in a quiet little pedestrian street full of cute shops nearby.  It is remarkably uncrowded and slow moving because of the heat (90F).  The next day our river cruise friends arrive, and we walk Le Jardin de Luxembourg, skipping the Palais there, built for Marie de Medici, but now occupied by the French Senate.  It feels good just to be out experiencing  the breeze under rows of chestnut trees with the Parisian families at the end of the day.

The French do massive topiary on their chestnuts, cutting them into giant boxes.  Here you see the bottoms all regulated to the same height.  'Under the spreading chestnut tree?' Non merci!  Not in Luxembourg Garden.
The next day, we visit Musèe Rodin, which includes a wonderful sculpture garden, including Auguste Rodin’s  fabulous statue of Balzac and his masterwork La Porte de l’Enfer, which was not cast for the first time until after his death.  The Thinker, everyone’s iconic Rodin masterpiece, is really the centerpiece of the Gates of Hell, his deep pondering  meditation on love, vice, evil and mortality; heavy thoughts indeed.  This sculpture is directly inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy;  the Thinker has been variously interpreted as the poet himself, and as Adam contemplating his sin.  Rodin’s works dwell on human darkness and ambivalence, and his sculpture shows great wisdom about the physical manifestations of these emotions.  As a man whose existence is defined by his ability to think, he is responsible for the choice he makes – which can bring him to these gates.   Rodin was good friends with Baudelaire (Les Fleurs Du Mal), and he is very much within a French tradition that includes De Sade, De Maupassant, Hugo, Picasso, Camus and Sartre who lived in the city of Light but partook as well of darkness.

 Francois-Auguste-Rene Rodin (1840-1917)
La Porte d'Enfer, Rodin's masterwork
Although Auguste Rodin is probably second only to Michelangelo as the most famous of all sculptors, he faced great struggles for critical acceptance during his career.  He insisted on a more naturalistic style than the reigning contemporary aesthetic of the Academy which was dominated by Neo-Classical ideas, and had trouble getting his works accepted by the Salon, the reigning artistic forum of his day.  However pained he may have been about lack of critical acceptance, Rodin steadfastly refused to compromise his artistic vision.   He nevertheless was very popular among the collecting class, and outside of France, and by 1900, he was solidly commercially successful.  On his death in 1917, he willed his work and studio to the French government.  The modern sculpture garden and museum are at that location now, next to Les Invalides.

Neo-Classical sculpture at it's finest.  Le Salon liked this.
Le Salon did not like this:  Rodin's Balzac

The sculpture garden is definitely the highlight here and most of his famous works are displayed in it.  In early July, the weather is beautiful and we spend most of our time walking in the garden and lingering at the pieces, magnificent in the golden summer afternoon light.  Because of the spacious setting, there is not problem seeing the larger works.  Rodin did many smaller works and some that only exist in clay that were never cast, and it is necessary to go inside for those.  Many of the garden statues are stand-alone versions of the parables of La Porte de l’Enfer.

Inside the Museum itself we explore Rodin’s work and his relationship with Camille Claudel, whose story is very tragic. Claudel came to Rodin at age 18 with considerable talent and a great love of sculpture.  If his depictions of her are given any credence, she was very beautiful, and she showed a great passion for the work beyond merely serving as his model.  It is easy to imagine how profoundly she must have appealed to him.  A gifted sculptress in her own right, she would spend 15 years as his pupil, muse and lover.

Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
One of Rodin's busts of Camille

Their relationship was, like his work, an intense mixture of light and dark.   Claudel was beautiful, passionate, and driven.  She suffered from severe depression which later became so overwhelming she obsessively destroyed her own work.  Although deeply attached to Rodin, she was also very jealous of his longtime companion, Rose Beuret.  She tried very hard to get him to leave Beuret, and was prone to fits of jealous rage over this relationship.  Claudel was also eager for acceptance as a distinct and separate artist and not merely as his student.  As one of his apprentices, she often assisted him in the execution of his work, and given the gender roles prevailing in fin de siècle France, it was hard for her not to feel she was in his shadow.  It did not help that she was 24 years Rodin’s junior. 

Age of Maturity by Camille Claudel.  It is hard notto interpret this bigraphically, with Beuret guiding Rodin away from the imploring Claudel.
There was great push and pull in the relationship between Rodin and Claudel, and he was not one to be easily moved.  Rodin may have deeply loved Claudel, but he never left Beuret, and finally married his longtime companion only a year before he died.  In 1898 he broke off the relationship with his pupil. Three years after Claudel and Rodin parted and at the age of 34, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and became reclusive. Great controversy surrounds this diagnosis and her eventual commitment.  Clearly she was very troubled; this was in this period that she destroyed most of her work, and apparently soured relations with her brother.   In 1913 her brother had her permanently consigned to a mental institution on the Marne River, and then she was moved to Southern France to avoid the advancing Germans in 1914.  Her brother visited only rarely, and rejected all efforts of her doctors to get him agree to her release.  They did not think she was that disturbed.  Rodin never visited her following the hospitalization and when she died in 1943, no one claimed her body.  Rodin’s commercial success greatly overshadowed Claudel’s.  But saddest of all, as an accomplished male artist, he could define his terms and stick to them.  As a woman, she could not, and her Hell was right here on earth.  Her work was exhibited during her lifetime, but it took feminist reinterpretation before a wider acceptance started in the 1960’s.   It shows both Rodin’s influence and her own genius, and both artists were gifted in depicting human conflict so that it was easy to appreciate the tragedy of her lost artistry.  And her loss of control over her own destiny and the moral agency Rodin so grippingly sculpted into Le Penseur!

The Thinker gets around.  Here he contemplates the Detroit Institute of Arts.


  1. Even the brightest of lights will always cast a shadow. One can only imagine the sheer amount of shadows and darkness cast in a city known as "The City of Lights".

    This was another wonderfully entertaining and educational read. I found this information exceptionally engaging in the way you presented it, and I discovered more about Paris and one of its visionary artists than I had previously known.

    I loved your description of Rodin.

    "Rodin’s works dwell on human darkness and ambivalence, and his sculpture shows great wisdom about the physical manifestations of these emotions. As a man whose existence is defined by his ability to think, he is responsible for the choice he makes – which can bring him to these gates."

    This ambivalence in human nature actually reminds me of Taoism and its treatment of Yin and Yang, the abstraction for those contrary forces that are interdependent to each other. Light and darkness are as concepts inextricably entwined to one another, both requiring the other in its definition. That various cultures would recognize this duality that exists within us all is not surprising in the least!

    I found the story you described of Camille Claudel and her relationship to Auguste Rodin sad, tragic, and ultimately human. One can only imagine the ice water that undoubtedly flowed through her brother's veins as he condemned her to institutionalization for the remainder of her life. It is truly an injustice that she was born a century too early, because I feel that if Claudel had been granted the benefit of modern psychology and neuroscience, her depression could have been aggressively treated though therapy and potentially medication.

    "But saddest of all, as an accomplished male artist, [Rodin] could define his terms and stick to them. As a woman, [Claudel] could not, and her Hell was right here on earth."

    It saddens me to think that there are still corners of the globe where a woman's free will and moral agency are undermined to such degrees or worse. That Claudel's story is one that continues to be echoed even now. Even though I am strongly opposed to militant feminism that seeks equity through retribution instead of mutual understanding, it is in these stories that I can see the origins of its rage.

    I can only hope that despite her depressing circumstances (clinical and otherwise!), Claudel was able to find some measure of happiness. Maybe she found sanctuary in escapism, imagining a life where she did find professional and personal success. A life where where her romantic pursuits did not culminate in her being "the other woman" - a position that few women would ever be envious of. Maybe it is a life that involves an alternate timeline Rodin intimately in its every aspect, or maybe it is one that sees her grow as an artist and person beyond the length of his formidable shadow.

    Given the fact that the professionals did not believe Claudel to be that disturbed, it would be nice to believe that she fought her depression tooth and nail for what semblance of sanity and happiness she could afford.

  2. I do not really know what her struggle with her depression was like. Claudel's father was supportive of her working as a sculptress, but he died. I do not know if the family became distressed by her aggressive acting out, or whether they were embarrassed by her, or some other reason led to her brother locking her away.

    Claudel roomed with and was friends with Jessie Lipscombe, another accomplished turn of the century sculptress. She was one of Camille's few visitors in the Asylum in Provence. The artistic community recognized their loss. It is probable that she was not paranoid schizophrenic, but that here was lots of anger, and French society then, as ours now, judged that pretty harshly in women.

    This story will make an interesting bookend to that of Vincent Van Gogh, who spent a few years painting in Arles, which is at the very end of our journey.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. I like this post even better than your other ones. I love your playfulness with Roissy; the book cover is a striking opening illustration.

    Rodin is one of my favorite sculptors, and I enjoyed all the intimate information about him you provided. Your analysis of his work is also to the point.

    Claudel's story would be sad if it were exceptional, but hers was all too common fate of extremely intelligent, talented, and smart women all the way until the sixties. Smart and intelligent women have a bit more opportunities now (at least in the most developed countries), but it is still quite difficult.

    About Paris, I don't know what to say, except that it is definitely my favorite city in the world. I would even consider trading it for my sunny Southern California.

    Viva la France!

  4. I think Claudel's story is sad, Ana. It is exceptional in that we have pretty good access to her surviving work. Her treatment was controversial even in her own day.

    And, of course, it is sad that we will never know so many other examples of genius because of discrimination, then, now, and alas, in the future.

    Count me among those throngs of visitors who adore Paris.