A few years back, my husband, Alan, and I were invited to the south of France to celebrate a friend’s birthday, which was lovely.
When our friend Valerie heard that we would be in Avignon, she was quite excited for us. “Avignon has the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris,” she told us. “You must go and see them.”
For those of you who don’t know, Camille Claudel was a sculptor, student and eventual (scorned) mistress of Auguste Rodin. Her work is breathtaking. We had seen some of it at the Rodin Museum in Paris. There’s one of a little girl. You know that moment just before a child tells you something they’re really excited about, when they swallow and take a deep breath just before they talk? She captured that moment. In marble. It’s exquisite.
Walking through Avignon, we saw posters advertising their Museum with the current exhibit and a notation that it housed the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris. We checked the map and headed on over.
At the entrance, we were met with difficulty. We had gotten our money from the bank machine and the man behind the desk didn’t have change.
“But,” he said, brightening. “If you purchase the Passeport of Savings, you will only have to visit one more museum to make up the difference.”
“I’m not sure we have time to visit another museum,” Alan muttered.
“No, but we don’t want to miss the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris,” I said. “Valerie will never let us live it down.”
Valerie had grown up in France. She knew her collections of sculptures.
We bought the Passeport.
It was a quiet day at the Museum. Early September. Tourist Season was over and France was settling back into their routines. We wandered from gallery to gallery, looking at paintings from the 17 and 1800’s. Up the marble stairs, sighing over the views out the windows.
It was as we were on our way back down the stairs that I suddenly woke from my museum trance.
“Wait a minute,” I said to Alan.
“What about the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris?”
“We didn’t see any, did we?”
He walked over to the security guard, a very tall, very solidly built man, ascertained that he spoke English and asked, “Stupid question?”
“Oh, monsieur, there are no stupid questions,” the guard assured him.
“We were told you have the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris.”
“Ah oui!” A smile broke over his face. “Right this way”
The entrance to the gallery was effectively camouflaged by a collection of potted palms. We skirted around them and entered a room of much more modern artworks, paintings and sculptures.
We started walking, looking at the sculptures and noting the names….
My eye was caught by a pair of paintings by Chaim Soutine, whose work so amazed me that I had to borrow a pen on my way out to write his name on my Passeport of Savings.
Of the sculptures, there was only one by Camille Claudel. It was a bronze bust of her brother as a Roman centurion.
It held none of the magic I had come to expect from her work.
“This is the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris?” Alan asked in disbelief.
“Unless there’s another room?”
We made another, slightly more frantic circuit of the gallery. If there was a door leading somewhere else, it was invisible.
The door we had come through, however, was wide open and filled with people. There was our security guard, the man who had sold us the Passeport of Savings, a woman I had never seen before, who I guessed might be the Director of the Museum and one or two others, a cleaning woman, maybe, and possibly a taxi driver. All crowded together and gazing fondly at us, happy that we had come to see the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris.
“We have to make this look good,” I told Alan.
Glancing in the direction of the doorway, he agreed. “What do we do?”
“Study it,” I muttered, placing my hands behind my back and leaning in for a better look.
We made two circuits of the bust. It was possibly her first sculpture and, as far as we could make out, not nearly as good as her later works. But we pointed out details to each other and smiled in delight. And when we were done viewing, we took a deep breath and tore ourselves reluctantly away from the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris.
Walking reverently to the doorway, we shook hands with everyone by turn, the security guard, the man who had sold us the Passeport of Savings, the Director, the cleaning woman and the taxi driver.
“Magnificent, wonderful, inspiring,” we muttered, to their “Merci’s” and “Bonne journée’s.”
Leaving the museum, we felt like we had acquitted ourselves well in an awkward situation and would one day be welcomed back gladly to the city that held the largest collection of Camille Claudel sculptures outside of Paris.