Camille Claudel died three times. She slipped away first when her brother Paul signed the commitment papers. “I have fallen into a void,” she wrote to a friend, of her internment at the asylum, though her letters did not get out. Neither did Camille, though the sisters tried to release her to her family several times. Her family did not want her back. Camille was not much of a housekeeper and had demonstrated a nasty habit of smashing her sculptures every summer with a hammer. Besides, they had one genius in the family already. In the asylum, she did not sculpt or sketch. Her body became a block, her hands heavy and veined as marble. Time carved the lines of a madwoman in her face. In 1920 Camille expired officially, at least according to several popular books of reference that recorded this as the year of the artist’s death. But the artist was still alive! Or was she? When she died a third and final time, twenty-three years later, it seemed somehow too late, and yet too early, to place a stone upon her grave.
After beating the family horse violently at his island home in Maine, it was determined that Frederick Law Olmsted had become quite unmanageable. For months his memory had dwindled, his sense of persecution grown. His mind was a mess of thickets, mud, and sudden jarring turns. It was an ill fate, everyone agreed, for the man who had practically invented landscape design. His son Rick lodged him in the McLean asylum in Waverly Massachusetts, an institution for which Olmsted himself had designed the grounds. This consoled him not at all, in fact only increased his horror, for he found that once again his plans had not been carried out. Certain corners had been cut, making a shape as senseless as a child’s paper snowflake. Where were the placid pools and tranquil meadows, where the tender foliage of noble trees? Specimen plants grew in hard, hostile lines; the view from his room was blunt, rebutting. The paths led nowhere. For the life of him, he could find no way out.
When the body of Saint Bernadette was dug up a third and final time, a third time found perfectly intact, a miracle was declared and Pierre Iman contracted to create for the lady a light wax mask. God’s work was remarkable—the preservation of the liver particularly praised—but the blackish face and hands were regrettable. Iman’s mannequins, with real hair and glass eyes and names like Elaine, Roberta, and Nadine, were the toast of the Paris town, and could be found enjoying cocktails in shop windows across the city. Mannequin, however, was a term Iman disdained. He liked waxworks even less. The whole terminology was grotesque, banal. For himself he allowed ceroplastician, though he knew he was an artist at heart. Finally, he thought, when the cardinal called: a commission fit for an artist. For what was the artist’s task if not to capture the expression of the divine?
But it was trickier than it looked. How to approach the turn of the lips, the tone of bloom in the sainted cheeks? His Bernadette was first too carnal, then too cold. He could not get the eyelids thin enough. Finally, however, he finished, sending the face and hands off to Lourdes in a hatbox lined with Japanese paper. Pilgrims flocked to see the saint in her glass coffin, but Iman felt no relief. The eternal had eluded him. He visited the encaustics in the Louvre, smoked and strolled excessively, grew irritable. At every turn he met his own image, reflected and pierced in the endless windows that lined the city and enshrined his waxes. Their laughter, with porcelain teeth, was almost lifelike, and directed quite clearly at the living.