So it was very nice when I was asked to be included in an exhibition with her work in Avignon in 2013. She was the heart of the exhibition. And Louise Bourgeois, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Jana Sterbak, and I were like satellite components. All our work is very expressionistic. People think of Claudel as emoting a kind of psychology or mixing psychology with plastic material. Her sculpture was part of a new obsession with the personal rather than the civic. She was so great at turning the body inward. Our work, in some ways, comes out of that history.
Claudel’s work has an incredible motion to it. In The Waltz, the lovers are like seaweed anchored underwater. They are moving toward each other and apart—intermingling in a light, fluid way.
There’s a lot of sculpture from the late 19th century that’s interested in motion, like The Finishing Line by Claudel’s first teacher, Alfred Boucher. The figures are moving forward on a horizontal plane. The world was speeding up.
But there’s an idealization of the body there as a vital power. And they’re moving, but the movement is sort of static.
On the other hand, the works by Claudel that I find most interesting move in diagonals, like The Waltz and Age of Maturity. They’re not purely upright or horizontal. There’s an ascendant. It’s a different kind of movement. It’s also about gravity. A lot of her work fights gravity, but it still must stand up without falling over.
Sometimes it’s nice if things just fall over: there’s a whole other subject in art of things that can’t sustain themselves. But Claudel created something between being unsustainable and sustainable.
In her sculpture Claudel made herself very vulnerable. Like Louise Bourgeois, who made a career from her personal life, from exposing her personal psychology and dilemma—she was also very intelligent about it. At the same time, one hates knowing too much about other people. Camille Claudel’s life was tragic. Frida Kahlo’s life was tragic. But you don’t want them reduced to those stories. That denies their artistic achievement. For most artists you can’t really create movies about them. What most of us do is so mundanely boring for 90% of the time. I make prints, I sit, I do it again, then I change one minute thing. I spend six months or a year doing it. And for me there’s something fascinating about that, but it’s hard to turn into a movie. Whereas Claudel and Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Wojnarowicz, those artists you can make movies about. It’s because external things happened to them.
Historically, it was mostly women who were put in a secondary position. Look at Helen Frankenthaler, Frida Kahlo, and Joan Mitchell. Each was in a relationship with a powerful man, like Claudel with Rodin. The only people I know who don’t fit into that are sort of my heroes: Nancy Spero and Leon Golub. They feel very much like being in an equal relationship with one another’s works. I never had many personal attachments to other artists where you felt the social distance: that they were the artist and you were the girlfriend. I had one like that, and I thought, “This isn’t gonna fly.” I don’t want to be the girlfriend.
With Rodin, Claudel was made to feel the anxiety of influence. For myself, my father, Tony Smith, was a sculptor. My sister and I grew up with his work and I don’t think that we ever saw it as separate from us because it was so familial. He really was a genius and for a long time I felt very ashamed to want to make art. I thought, “How could I be in that milieu?” I was 26 when he died. And I now see how profoundly he influenced me, in the weirdest ways possible. There’s a piece of his—Source (1967)—which is, to my mind, like a body and an appendage. Much of my early work had a lot to do with it. But I didn’t feel oppressed by it. Although I remember once giving a lecture and someone asked: “How come you don’t make geometric things like your father?” I looked at them like they were insane.
Rodin and Claudel were part of an earlier system, where students worked tightly under their teachers. Even 20 years ago in schools where I taught, it was very male-dominated and very much a system where teachers were hypercritical and punitive to students—the father tried to kill the children. It’s very different now, especially in the American system. There are influential teachers, but they have much less power.
Claudel’s work might have had some relation to Rodin, but all artists are like the light bearers of the whole history of creativity. Being an artist is about learning from what you’ve seen, synthesizing it, and remaking it through your own experience. It’s very different to reading, for example. It’s a way of learning by taking what you see into your physical being and putting it out again as something new. As a child, my sister and I made octahedron and tetrahedron components for my father. He would put them all together by pointing and telling us how to assemble them. And then he would take it all apart and reconfigure it into something else. And that is the strategy of how I work now. I make a whole bunch of something or other, and then I keep reconfiguring it and collaging it and changing it from one material into another. It’s not in a linear, literal way that artists carry the visual history of the world, or the history of meaning through representation. Often it’s very convoluted.
—Kiki Smith, artist
See works by Kiki Smith in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection.
Outside Voices articles feature creative thinkers and makers engaging with artwork in the collection.