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?