L’Âge mûr by Katharine Johnsen

At this opportunity, Mademoiselle Claudel proposed to me the model
of a group, with a genuinely interesting composition […]. It represents the age
of maturity, interpreted as a man carried away by old age and implored by youth.
Letter from Armand Silvestre to the Under-Secretary of State, 3 July 1895

Torso of bald Clotho, c. 1892
First, her body: a bare torso, dripping.
Not just the breasts, slack with age, flush against
her ribcage, ribs protruding, her nipples
all that distinguish flesh from bone. Without
her matted hair to obstruct extension,
the neck cranes, head tilts as if gazing out,
wanting what she has always overlooked.
How strange to hold this woman in my hands;
manipulation’s never been more fun.
Eyes hollowed—wide and alarmed—cheekbones high,
but rough. Look at her hips, uneven where
the mold separated. I think she is more
than a fate: someone else, someone closer,
her fluid movement halted in plaster.

Clotho, 1893
Her fluid movement halted, in plaster
Clotho is held captive by the tresses
that weigh her body down. Braids twist around
her knees, blending into the base. She stands
on brittle legs, weak as her plaits are thick.
Her body desiccated, ribs ripple,
flesh hangs like rags against her sides; she pays
the toll of destiny, gaunt frame crumbling
under the strain of duty: her vacant
gaze shielded, this fate spins the threads of life.
This Clotho, frightening and shriveling, will
be the Old Woman in L’Âge mûr, who, cloaked,
will guide the Man away, who has done so
already, so familiar, so damaging.
Head of the old woman, 1893-1900

Already so familiar, so damaged
one critic has called her features distorted—
though I prefer accentuated, so
the result will be more emotional
and visceral. That I learned from Rodin.
I have made her head so many times now:
for Clotho and L’Âge mûr. After casting,
I sealed my mistakes with plaster, smoothing
it with my thumb until my hands were dried,
lumps hardened and dripping across the bridge
of her nose, the nostril sealed where it should
flare. She is unfinished, not the texture
of wrinkle: fine, deliberate with age;
her face marred by attempts at correction.
Study of the head of L’Implorante, 1893-1900
Her face marred by attempts at perfection—
is it selfish to be my own model?—
I find myself struggling with my disguise,
hoping I’m hidden enough within her.
The eyes are deep-set, troubling, uneven:
one slightly higher, set close to the nose,
while the other is unfinished. I mix
plaster with water, fight time. This piece, once
complete, will be L’implorante, its own sculpture
like Clotho, and also the young woman
for L’Âge mûr. Soon I’ll begin her body.
There will be more studies on what she sees.
Here no one but I knows what’s out of reach.
As a lone bust, her gaze has no context.

Head of the Old Man (with a base on the bust), 1893-1900
I have not yet put his gaze into context:
what’s before him, what he will leave behind,
I haven’t assembled. Though I find him
most honest here, vapid. Light reflects off
bronze temples, cheekbones, the arc of his ear.
Lines of age ripple, a face in motion.
Like a globe turning, his smile deceives:
a latitude line only appears curved.
I craft him from memory, remember
his face against my fingers, the bust he
sat for so many years ago. Holding
the cooled bronze in my warm hands I have him
again, though this is one part of a whole.
Once completed, I’ll have nothing to hold.

Head of the Old Man (study for L’Âge mûr), 1893-1900
I’ll have nothing to hold. Completed once,
I’ve made another study of his head
smoothed out some of his wrinkles,
disguised him in his accentuated
features: bare face, heavy eyes, thinner lips.
How deep his worry runs, etched with the wood
spatula, I see in him my own loss.
Light picks up the curve of his nose, shadows
the philtrum, the angelic impression
rendering him anonymous. He is
still unfinished. I haven’t smoothed him, I’m
not ready to be done. With each study,
I bring him closer, bring him back to me,
as hot metals harden to memory.

The Implorer, (large model) 1893-1905
As hot metals harden to memory,
I find myself leaning toward her gesture:
the Implorer’s arms outstretched as I have
often found my own, palms open, empty.
She will be the young woman of l’Âge Mûr.
For what she is reaching, I know quite well.
Both hands and feet petite and graceful, how
he so admired them, so much of my work
unrecognized, made in his atelier,
claimed as his own. But on this rock where she
kneels, I have etched my name into the clay
before sending the mold to the foundry.
I am sculptor, student, model, lover.
This piece bears only my name: C. Claudel.
Maturity, First maquette, c. 1894

I have not yet signed my name to this piece.
The first time all three figures come together,
the Implorer still touches the Old Man:
his arm held to her breast, nearly pressing
her cheek into the bend of his elbow.
On her knees, she is upright, part of them.
His bicep bulges, muscle rippling, shoulder
too bulky for his torso; other arm,
too long, hangs around the Old Woman. She,
whose breasts droop, ribs protrude, drapes her left arm
around his body, though does not touch him.
Her other hand, arm flush at her side, forms
a fist. She braces his body, arm around
her shoulder. In clay, she takes him again.

Maturity (small model), 1894-1900

She will take him, for the last time, in bronze.
The last bit of funding has been paid out,
M. Tissier has decided to cast it
and M. Blot has the mold at the foundry.
How many times I have described this work,
appealed to the Ministry, forced to rely
on every man I know, what I have done
to conceal it from Rodin as I worked.
Now it is out of my hands, should be shown
at the salon next spring. I imagine,
or rather I hope, it will be understood
as what I have explained the piece to be:
Maturity: a man being implored
by youth while taken by an old woman.

Maturity, 1893-1900

He was once taken by an old woman—
her tangled mass of braids now a large cape
shielding the Old Man, wind blowing it up
like wings. She guides him away—face smoother,
his head against her shoulder, spine curving
under what he must call guilt, his left arm
extending towards The Implorer, his hand
just out of reach. Her arms extend towards him.
If there had been a tight grip, it has since slipped.
They are here now, movement frozen in bronze
a final version hardened, permanent.
He turned away, head down, blinded
by the path she leads. How do I show over?
She can have him: bare torso, dripping.



Read TJ Jarrett’s interview with Katharine Johnsen in Women in Form



Katharine Johnsen earned her MFA in Creative Writing as the Bernice Kert Fellow at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and her BA from Emory University. She is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere.