Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Favorite Sculpture

It's nothing large, heroic, or famous. A copy of it lives at the Tel Aviv Art Museum, which I had the good luck to visit yesterday. I've been visiting this sculpture, at this museum, since I was about ten years old. It's Rodin's extremely rough 1886 study Camille Claudel Wearing a Bonnet. How rough is it? Well, he seems to have dropped it before casting it, because there's a big flat spot on the right side of the bonnet:

When I first saw it, I sank into it. This person in this sculpture seemed to contain an awareness of the entire world. And yet she was suffused with a sort of sadness. I could not comprehend it at the time - how could somebody who knew the entire world be sad? I wanted to know what she knew, and I wanted to talk to her about it. I wanted to live in her, in the world she contained that was inflected with her personality and its sublimely sensitive awareness.

Also, she was beautiful. This face, the plainest of faces, the simplest, unfolds into beauty as you stand and study her. The seeming androgyny dissolves in the profound femininity of that curved jaw, the softness to the sides of the lips, the delicate nose. You keep returning to those mesmerizing eyes, whose gaze you can never quite catch, because they are defocused, they are staring into that interior universe.

After I first met Rodin's Camille, I had a teacher who stumbled on this same concept of containing the world. He suggested that genius might be defined as having the capacity to undertake, and succeed at, the process of reproducing the entire world in one's mind, to so great a degree of validity that, by examining the reproduced world, properties of the real world could be deduced. His example was Einstein, who, examining his interior model of the world, derived the principle of general relativity.

Take or leave this idea of genius. I don't necessarily find it completely useful myself. But according to its terms, this Camille would have to be described as a genius; and by extension, Rodin himself, who created, or re-created, her. This is one reason it is my favorite sculpture: many other sculptures capture large parts of the world, but only this one includes all of it.

When I was 14, I read Rodin on Art, a short but mighty book about which I will have more to say. And I spent many years after that thinking about Rodin.

During all that time, every time I came to Israel (I visit frequently - my father's family lives here), I visited that same Camille with whom I have been in love since I was very young, and who will haunt me all my life. One time, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I kissed her when nobody was looking. Every time I visit, I draw her a couple times. The drawings are always just atrocious. I am intimidated by the totality of this work of art; I begin to fail as soon as I try to capture it a second time. Camille will never be mine. I will have to create my own Camille.

Here are this visit's wretched efforts:

What, you thought I was kidding? I wouldn't lie to you. They really aren't ever any good. Maybe I'll scan some older ones when I get back to the States if I can find them.

This sculpture changed my life. From it, I learned the profundity available to art - the magnitude of the world - the beauty of women - and I got my first inkling of the tragic quality of consciousness itself, which is infinite, in the context of the human condition, which is finite.

What art changed you?


  1. Got it.

    Freshman year, Intro to Drama Criticism, or some such course. There were two shows in the rep, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9". The first we were to read before we saw it, the other we were not.

    I was eighteen, and despite my major (acting) I didn't really enjoy going to the theater. I liked to do it, I didn't like to watch it. This course was to teach me something I badly needed to learn - how to articulate what I think about a play, not just whether I liked it or not, but why.

    The production of "Cat" was ... uhm ... not good? Because ... uh, I didn't like it? Because the main characters was ... not good? Not very ... good? Not, well, the way she is described? Like, in the text? Miscast. Terrible miscast. I had learned one very useful word in theater criticism, "Miscast." I grew from there.

    In general, there was a feeling among the freshman class, a feeling of unease. Is this what we aspire to? Does this particular school of theater, in a word, suck?

    Well. With the opening the following week of the other show in that semester's repertory, my fears for a decent education were allayed - and my mind was fucking blown.

    "Cloud 9" is not the best play I have ever read, though I feel it is a very good play, and I do like what Churchill has to say with it, and how she says it.

    More to the point, it was an important play for me to see, at that point in my life. An education in things a bourgeois, white, (at that time) Republican boy needed to hear - about patriarchy, about racism, sexism, Eurocentricism, about homosexuality, about heterosexuality - about SEX. About every hang-up a person like me might have in the mid-80s.

    An education, artfully told. There was music, a song comes out of nowhere in the second act, girl kissing, the first real gay characters I got to know onstage. And it was beautiful. I remember the performances to this day, extremely precise, sharp, cutting, moving, hurtful, and fucking HILARIOUS.

    When I was older, just past 30, I produced and acted in a production of this same play. I think it was good, too, but it didn't mean as much, not in 2000. Or not to a 30 year-old. Or maybe we just weren't them. That's the thing about a performance, as opposed to a piece of visual art - an artifact. I can continue to consider your work today, tomorrow, forever, ideally. But mine, you can't. If you weren't there, you missed it.

    But was it that good? Couldn't say - but I can say this. Just this weekend I reconnected (yes, through Facebook) with an actor from that production in 1986. She was an MFA director, and later directed me in a play for her thesis, when I was in my third year. And just today she sent me photos from that production.

    I gasped. I had forgotten what it looked like. I could hear it, but my impression of the design had been heavily influenced - hell, erased - by my 2000 production.

    SO 1986, the second act was! The pastels, the hair, the clothes, the facial hair - incredible! And they all look so much YOUNGER than I remember! Because they were older than me then, I guess, and they have remained older to me, not people in their very early or in some cases, mid-twenties.

    And these visuals brought so much back. I'd give a hand for a video, but those are always so awful, recordings of plays. I would die to be there again, just once, to be part of it, in the audience, loving to see a play - maybe for the first time ever.

  2. I could sell you a bronze or plaster cast of this sculpture for a good price! I can tell you the long story about how I came to have the casts if you are interested...
    Michael O'Keefe

  3. Well damn! Tell me the story! (and the prices)