Shelley’s Art Musings: Are Artists above Human Condition?

Rodin said: “To any artist, worthy of the name, everything in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as an open book all the inner truth.”

In the art world, past and present, we have seen artists strive for perfection, using their own mental or physical afflictions to benefit their cause, seeking a consciousness which is all seeing. But does this mean that they can push boundaries too far and over step the mark at the detriment of themselves and others?

Obviously, we are aware of how Van Gogh cut off an ear, and how Munch expressed his own personal anxieties through his paintings to combat his demons, but how does this play out with other artists and their impacts on others?

At the beginning of October, multiple women accused Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, of sexual misconduct

In today’s culture, we are seeing the most recent and terrible cases of sexual assault and rape allegations from artists such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.  Reminiscent of the case of Roman Polanski, there has always been a stigma attached with the theatrical and film industry of advantage being taken of either struggling actors or actors preying on the vulnerable. But is this through their strive for perfection that such awful behaviour becomes a belief that they could be above the law? And a reflection of the art which they are involved in has bent their psyche in a way in which pushes them to search for the emotion of all situations.  Does this mean that they can use their position to manipulate situations to their own means?

Kevin Spacey, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors, is now facing a wave of criticism over sex allegations

I want to make it very clear that I am in no way supporting this behaviour, but it seems that there could be a theory here.  After all, Dustin Hoffman is a known method actor, immersing himself in every role that he plays. And there is still speculation around the death of Heath Ledger and his inability to detach himself from the role of the Joker which he had entrenched himself in.

Could it be that Spacey, Weinstein and Polanski have pushed themselves over the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour through some inability to detach themselves from their art?  We are only to look at some of the films produced and roles played to see that these people are submersing themselves in a (albeit pretended) world of the underhanded and depraved, and if it is alright to behave like that on screen, why not in their real lives?

This behaviour very readily translates to artists gone by.  There is no way in today’s society would we be accepting of artists stealing corpses to dissect them to understand the anatomical nature of the body. Yet we know this happened and in many cases, artists were much more advanced in their understanding of the anatomical workings of the body than physicians of the time.

Roman Polanski is now facing multiple accusations of sexual assault against a child

A well-known case of how life impacted their art is the one of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel.  The pair met when Claudel was learning to sculpt. So impressed was he with her raw talent that he took her on as a pupil, as well as falling in love with her.  Could this have been Rodin using his position as a teacher to manipulate the feelings of Claudel to match his own?

The affair was a complicated and passionate one, which through the course of time has been overly romanticised in books and films. But what we can attest to is the true love felt between the pair, through the letters that they sent each other and the works of art which they created.

The love affair inspired both artists, as they used their work as a declaration, criticism or echo of one another.

Two sculptures from Rodin which convey the passion felt for Claudel are The Gates of Hell – I am Beautiful, and Eternal Springtime.  Rodin was much freer with his work and muse than Claudel and these two pieces beautifully convey the feelings which penetrated his life in this period.

Auguste Rodin. Eternal Springtime, 1884. Bronze, 64.5 cm x 58 cm x 44.5 cm. Musee Rodin , France

During this time, Claudel needed some space and left France for England.  On her return, Rodin was so happy to have her back that he took her on as his only student and swore to be faithful to her.

Claudel kept her influences much closer to her chest, which was probably the result of Rodin refusing to leave his wife to be with her full time. But her biggest tribute to her teacher and lover was The Bust of Rodin, a sculpture lovingly created, capturing the very essence of the man that she was so in love with.

The complex affair between the two went from 1882 to 1891, and ended when Rodin, again refused to leave his wife for Claudel.  In an uncharacteristic outburst, Claudel expressed her rage in caricatures created of the couple.  This distressed Rodin, seeing her violent nature and he started to avoid her, despite his feelings for her.

Claudel’s work has often been said to have been created out of a process of sublimation. Simplistically put, her work is more of an autobiographical portfolio of the state of the affair she had with Rodin, whereas Rodin himself used her as his muse.  Claudel’s most telling sculpture for this is The Age of Maturity.

Camille Claudel. The Age of Maturity, 1902. Bronze group in three parts, 114 cm x 163 cm x 72 cm. Musée d’Orsay , Paris

The sculpture shows a male central figure being led off by an older woman as the younger woman, outstretched, yearns for the return of the man. This sculpture marked the end of the relationship between Claudel and Rodin.

This is a clear parallel between the life and art between two people. The influence of their feelings envelops their world, to create a beautiful extraction of their time together through the medium of stone.

While the creation of something beautiful came from what is essentially adultery, an act which impacted Rodin’s wife, and Claudel’s family, is what we are seeing today, with the abhorrent acts of artists of our own time, their intrinsically linked mind-set to their art form?

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