Berthe Morisot – Camille Claudel – Frida Kahlo
INDEPENCENCE? I’M TEMPTED TO SAY THAT INDEPENDENCE DOESN’T EXIST. INDEPENDENCE EXISTS INSOFAR AS IT’S LIMITED OR TEMPORARY. I CAN AGREE WITH THAT STATEMENT.
Maybe the first and only experience of independence we have is when we’re children. Remember when we used to stagger happily away on our own two feet, without needing a supporting hand? Children don’t know anything about independence, and are therefore happy. This concept accompanies them throughout the years and it’s only years later, when they leave the family nest as a teenager or go and live in a shared apartment or alone, that they realise what independence means. Finally: independence at last! Supposedly, we rejoice because we always depend on something or someone. Man depends on nature. Independence is secondary.
Independent – dependent? I leave you with this question, hoping it is food for thought to think about events that happened to you or your acquaintances.
Berthe Morisot, 1841–1895, can be seen as an independent painter due to her well-off and respected family: however, her independence only lasts as long as societal conventions don’t get in the way. She took private painting lessons together with her sister Edma. Bear in mind that the Parisian Art Academy only allowed women to study there in 1897. But Berthe was privileged. During the evenings, her parents invited artists around and these guests influences the two sisters: Camille Corot became one of their teachers, while Millet taught them sculpting, and Edouard Manet, introduced to them by Fantinlatour, would represent an important encounter in their life, just as Degas. The ‘independent sisters’ could exhibit their first paintings at the Paris Salon, the start of their professional careers as painters. Thanks to the family’s financial independence, Berthe Morisot never had to work hard to sell her pictures. Yet her independence was limited. For example, Manet asked Berthe to be his model. Decency required her mother to sit with her in the atelier, as models would normally also be open to other services, namely sexual, for the painters. When her sister Edma married and moved to Brittany, Berthe had to give up another independence: the painting trips with her sister weren’t possible any more. Convention didn’t allow Berthe to undertake them on her own. She complained about the matter in a letter to her sister. Berthe Morisot is one of the best painters at the end of the 19th century. Three years before her death, her first big solo exhibition took place. She was independent financially, yet societal conventions made her dependent.
One of the most important sculptors of her time, Camille Claudel, (1864–1943) had an early start: she started modelling as a child and, at age 13, declared she wanted to become a sculptor. Her father supported her, ensuring his 16-year.old daughter is accepted at a private art school, where female students are allowed, and renting out an apartment in Montparnasse. She now shares an atelier with three other women. Independence! Auguste Rodin becomes her teacher at the age of 19. Rodin recognised her exceptional talent and offers for her to come and work with him at his atelier. She soon reaches his same mastery of the art, becomes his inspiration and muse. His favourite pupil, 24 years his junior, then became his lover. The relationship is a complicated one, Camille feels exploited and, when she becomes pregnant, he doesn’t marry her. They separate, and she tries to become independent as far as her art is concerned. This just isn’t feasible for the artist, now in her mid-30s. She destroys most of her works of art. After the death of her supporter, namely her father, her brother Paul Claudel, poet and diplomat, and her mother, take her to a psychiatric clinic, where she remains for 30 years until she passes away without ever creating another sculpture.
The third woman I would like to speak about is Mexican: Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954. I believe her to be the most important Latin American painter. A woman possessing a strong will who, despite her disabilities (she became sick and never truly recovered when she was 6 and was involved in a serious road accident when she was 18 which left her a cripple) was politically engaged, and claimed her date of birth was 1910, the year of the revolution. She supported Trotzki, who escaped to Mexico, exiled by Stalin, yet respected Stalin, too. Her need for independence resulted in her abandoning the Communist Party. While hospitalised, the 19-year-old starts painting, expressing her spiritual and physical pain through the medium of art. She marries Diego Rivera at the age of 22, Rivera 20 years her senior and famous for his larger-thanlife political and revolutionary murals. They separate after 10 years of marriage, only to marry again one year later. Both live their need for independence by having countless affairs and yet continue hanging on to each other. After the death of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera says her pictures, preserved in a museum located in her hometown, Coyoacán, will never leave Mexico.