Welcoming her back

Elif Sezen is an Australian-Turkish interdisciplinary visual artist, researcher, bilingual writer and poet. She received her PhD (Art&Design) from Monash University; she lives and works in Melbourne. Her collection of short stories Gece Düşüşü (‘Fall. Night.’) was published by Hayal Press early 2012 (in Turkish). Her translations of Ilya Kaminsky’s collection of poems Dancing in Odessa was recently published in Turkish by Artshop Press. Her recent collection of poems Universal Mother was published by GloriaSMH Press mid-2016. Her website: http://www.elifsezen.com/

Camille Claudel was born on December 8, 1864 in northern France. From a very early age she was interested in working with soil and stone, and this fascination eventually led her to be a student at the Académie Colarossi, under the guidance of sculptor Alfred Boucher. When Camille met August Rodin, a passionate relationship started to flourish between them, as she became an important source of inspiration to him as a model, student, assistant, mistress and lover. Without a doubt, she had an enormous impact on Rodin’s life on an artistic and intellectual level, but eventually problems that arose between them brought the relationship into turmoil and Claudel entered an exhaustion phase. When Rodin would not leave his wife for Claudel after a decade together with great erotic passion, she lost her balance and delved into furiosity. The tragic point about her was that she couldn’t find any professional or personal support which could’ve helped her recover. Thus unfortunately she descended into madness and was institutionalized in 1913 where she remained until her death in 1943.

Claudel was a very dangerous female artist indeed. It was difficult for a woman to survive as an artist at that time (in particular a sculptor). It was also threatening to other artists when she incorporated multiple art genres, historical and contemporary influences, unexpected moments of daily life, enriching literary references into her work, and encouraged the audience to enter an unusual dimension of sculptural art. Indeed, she is one of the many female artists in history who had previously been obliterated or concealed by their male counterparts. She was dangerous yes, as she was brave and did whatever it took to be a great sculptor, in spite the environment that didn’t allow her to be herself. It is this dangerousness that encouraged me to speculate upon Claudel’s image in my art and poetry to liberate her from a dark psychic blueprint: I wanted to welcome her back.

Since 2004, Claudel has become one of the key figures that appear in my art works as one of my constant metaphors. I repetitively used a silhouette of her in my projects to allow that self-image to become an archetypal persona that represents many women, to tie up the personal and the universal, and to bring about a notion of conceptual reintegration for those women who were disintegrated in similar situations in the past. For only when the necessary amount of light is shed on the wound and all the pain is surfaced healing can take place in the public mind. Thus it is crucial to keep the reciprocal relationship between forgetting and remembering fresh towards the path of wholeness.

Elif Sezen, From the Series ‘Our night afternoon’, Mixed media on paper, 18x14cm, 2011

At this stage I would like to give a brief statement on my previously completed PhD project, where poetic and visual images became my instrument for such artistic explorations: the project emerged as my personal and artistic response to the sense of loss and trauma embedded in my family history… Also, it is important for me to point out that I am not recreating the effects of trauma and loss in my work. I am departing from this emotional nexus –its dangerousness- and speculating upon the restorative notions of self-construction, desire, longing and a sense of homecoming. In this cross-disciplinary investigation about self and identity, I bring forth the importance of self-identification as a dimension of emotional reconstruction. The concept of individual identity is the driving aspect of the research and leads to the sub-question: How does identity construe through various manifestations, flourishing from disrupted personal histories with the potential of unwrapping its layers, under the light of transformative self-explorations? My reason for using this as a supporting frame is not restricted to the inspiration I obtain from my personal experiences; it is also my intention to speculate on the idea of identity articulating a multi-dimensional manifestation, thus not indicating an only inward gaze.[i]

I preferred to bring forth the metaphorical and symbolic significance of an image of Claudel, amongst other images, that re-appears in most of my works. Because not only the symbolic transfiguration of this metaphor suggested a newly constructed identity and past; but it also became a gateway between the personal and the collective selves. The first time I used the portrait-image of Claudel it represented my mother in terms of socio-psychological challenges and the intricacies of a woman’s individual consciousness as an artist, and her potential to become ironically dangerous. It revealed her condition of being in-between lives; between a persona of a woman who is creative and a woman who is victimised. At another experiment, the Camille Claudel image became me and at another time she became Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Forugh Farrokhzad and many others. This was a very natural transmutation process of an individual reality becoming collective, transcending time forward and backward, eventually becoming an archetypal persona. A presence was multiplying. But, this image’s repetition is not a recall of a nostalgic frame. It rather resonates as an absurd and ironic sense of repetition, which both empties its primal meaning and opens up into a new level of existence. It is a representation of a woman who is no longer herself in the work. Her wound as a departure point is now a representation of other wounded women’s unheard telling. This image has its organic process of becoming, of insisting to exist as a transparent, newly constructed identity. It offers a new perspective for various possibilities that reconstitutes our deepest selves and identity layers.[ii]

I would like to explore what constitutes identity in my own words: I am looking at it from a point of view that it is continuously evolving. I do not prefer to consider it as a problem. Even though I often underlie the effects of pain and disintegration on one’s self on many levels, I do not intend to position them as a hysterical/pathological subject (In Claudel’s case, her oeuvre and genuine artistic contribution must not be overshadowed by her mental illness)… At times, exploring the pain of the past and its transformations through the work resonates with the ‘self’ dissolving, constructing, or being constructed, departing from the autobiographical, expanding to a multi-faceted exploration into and beyond meaning.[iii]

Elif Sezen, Dedicated to apple juice, Etching and Aquatint on paper, 2004
Elif Sezen, from The Garden series, Mixed media, 2004-2007

In my early works including Dedicated to apple juice (produced prior to my Doctoral candidacy), I presented Claudel’s image as a silhouette that encourages us to witness the merging of an individual identity with metaphorical expansion of a memory. In different layers (repeating in the background in one work, and repeating in the front layer in the other work) the poetic line ‘I loved apple juice the most’ (written in Turkish) suggests a sense of longing that gives life to both portraits by making their subconscious visible. It also attempts to replace my childhood memory of apple juice with Claudel’s suffering. In the works I produced during my Doctoral candidacy, I used this image many times to challenge the possibilities of self-representation and self-identification. I aimed to encourage shifting the perception of trauma and liberation, of death and rebirth of the ‘soul’ (here, rebirth of the soul might reflect the meanings of newly gained insights, self-realisation and awareness). In most of my works, repetition of symbols and metaphors opens up to a paradoxical approach of questioning the (power of!) vulnerability of each individual/artist. It urges to realise the arising potentiality from the gap between the visible and invisible manifestations of individual and social structures. I suggest the continual expansion of a poetic persona as a methodology of surrendering to the whole. This existential act encourages me to speculate upon the irony of homecoming that has no possibility for a true arrival, arrival to one’s own self, which is disordered by the current systems we live in.[iv]

Elif Sezen, two images from the series I have no name, – digitally manipulated photographs, 2012

In my work I have no name, series of digital photographic images of an installed group of sculptural objects (toys and a miniature monument of Claudel) signifying a reconceptualised long-gone world, the self is encouraged to align its various parts (the child self, the adult self, the evolving self). Hence, the self manifests through different levels of consciousness. It manifests through the nature of materials as well as symbolic images. Images of these sculptural memory objects of childhood might help us to measure the resistance of their existence in the interface between inner and outer worlds. To let their presence fade away and their absence be revealed, I used the expressive and bland nature of cement. Each character here becomes neutralised with the common space of this material; thus, now and eternally, each character is ‘nameless’.[v]

I let the image of Claudel fade away and return transformed. Destroying my own symbology enables me to discover new ways of saying things, and is also encouraging in terms of refreshing the connection to the present time and contemporary values. I believe that in this process there is a gap between the subjective image (which might be emerging from or involving memory) and the image that remains collective (even archetypal), both in itself and in the audience’s eye.[vi]

The ability “to make the past available for the self’s future”…through “the imaginative and symbolic energy” might confirm the creative view point of self-representation as a frame for memory work which I also tried to portray here through the example of Claudel’s image in history.[vii] Constructions and deconstructions of the past in one’s mind, appearing as a form of narrative, not only reveal the hidden layers between remembering and forgetting, but also become the record itself.[viii] Claudel eventually became a record in the collective mind; for some she was simply mentally ill and/or just a student of Rodin, for others she was a genius.  Under the light of relativity, multiple perspectives suggest that a fairer representation of woman artists is needed. Thus biographers, critics and historians play an important role in choosing which path to go:  to distort and re-write history or to approach it in the most truthful way possible.

I would like to conclude this piece with my following poem.



for Camille Claudel


When everyone is asleep

her ear drums pulsate with calypsos


of vampires, vampires of

French evolution, of Rodin’s kingdom,


of her cold hearted mother,

these are fugacious images of the street


she has no fear

she climbs the slope circling her existence


‘Even a street has veins’ she thinks,

‘we, tiny creatures living in a huge organism,


but my heart beats differently.’

The statues in her studio are more vivid:


remnants, or explosives?

This is how morning leaks in


crystallised on the window glass

rounding the sharp edges,


this is how the NO of existence



reminding us of what is forgotten,

effacing what is remembered . . .


Camille sculpts her forbidden love,

Sakountala, diffusing into this planet’s matrix


as a softened rock, warm

and fluid


She stares at her Clotho

cloaked fractals of hearts diffuse


from this woman into every

direction — she is bitter


as a Pierrot shouting with silence

within crowds


No, Clotho is not old. She is the

timeless torso of all women existed,



While she lives, butterflies flit about


from Camille’s coffin

as stars of beyond-worlds, in electric blue,


as a first breath,




[i] Elif Sezen, Night Watch: Reconceptualising poetry through poetry and visual images, Doctoral exegesis, Faculty of Art Design & Architecture, Monash University, 2014, p.4

[ii] Ibid. p.114-115

[iii] Ibid. p.10

[iv] Ibid. p.116

[v] Ibid. p.100

[vi] Ibid. p.92

[vii] Bollas cited in Nicola King. Memory, Narrative, Identity: Remembering the Self, Edinburg University Press, Edinburg, 2000, p.129


[viii] Elif Sezen, Night Watch: Reconceptualising poetry through poetry and visual images, Doctoral exegesis, Faculty of Art Design & Architecture, Monash University, 2014, p.96







Shannon R Callahan, “Beyond Rodin: Revisiting the Legacy of Camille Claudel”. The Cupola: Scholarship at Gettysburg College, Student Publications. 2015, Paper 327. Source: http://cupola.gettysburg.edu/student_scholarship/327


Image: Portrait of Camille Claudel by Cesar, around 1884, Copyright Rodin Museum