At the Feet of the Master at the Feet of the Master
A quasi-review of 'Self-Portrait' and 'Letters to Gwen John' by Celia Paul.
Possibly the creative highlight of the whole run of Delicious Line was the opportunity to review the small but powerful exhibition by Celia Paul at the Yale Center for British Art in 2018. I wrote:
This one-room, six-painting show conveys a heft all out of proportion to its size. One could think of Celia Paul as a second-generation School of London painter, with the requisite personal links to the first generation and an equal commitment to the alchemical powers of pigmented oils. Her contribution to that body of work is a heartfelt, nuanced faith. A 2015 painting, My Sisters In Mourning, makes the connection explicit. One of the four sitters is an Anglican vicar, another is a notable theologian. They sit, hands in laps, gazes inward, remembering their departed mother as a light about equal parts Rembrandt interior and Turner nocturne washes through them.
The artist is a regular retreatant to a religious enclave in Exmoor and a visitor to various English coastal towns. Consequently two seascapes appear. One of these is Shoreline (2015-16), which got an audible gasp out of me. In the pearlescent, implied waves, Paul seems not only have layered paint, but time - ages' worth.
Having long studied the paintings of the aforementioned first generation, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossof, I understood at once what Paul was doing upon finally seeing her work in person. I spent years adhering to a belief adopted and practiced by each of these painters in a different way, that it was crucial to have the subject in front of you in real life in order to make vital art out of it. This is not in fact true unless you’re working in a way that requires it, and I no longer am. But it was important to work through the understanding with a brush.
It subsequently became one of the highlights of Covidtime when Paul delivered a talk over Zoom in regards to the publication of her 2020 autobiography, Self-Portrait. This talk, preserved at the publisher’s page for the book, was surprising. She had a willingromantic relationship with Freud when he was her teacher at The Slade, where parties commonly involved orgies and heroin. That romance eventually produced a child, which was not an unheard-of occurrence in Freud’s biography, but I hadn’t realized it had involved Paul at some point. My image of Paul as an introvert and an inspired Christian, gleaned from the Yale exhibition and an obviously inadequate study of her history, received a radical update. Which is not to say that it damaged my opinion of her. On the contrary, I was further impressed by her blend of vulnerability and tenacity.
When Letters to Gwen John was published in 2022, I decided that I had neglected reading the biography for too long, picked up both titles, and spent a few weeks inside of the artist’s mind. Paul, a longtime diarist, took to writing entries in the form of impossibly familiar letters to John, who died twenty years before Paul was born. It was, to be honest, a little hard to accept the concept. I decided to put aside my reservations unless Paul took to writing replies on behalf of John, which thankfully never came to pass.
In the end I enjoyed both books quite a lot, saying so as an artist with great interest in the subject and her milieu. But I decided not to review them because as literary efforts they were in need of a lot more editorial pressure than they received. Self-Portrait switches back and forth between diary entries and essays, organized by topic though the section on Freud takes up more than a third of the book. Letters alternates between the aforementioned missives and expository digressions. If Paul was attempting to hang her legacy on her writing - which she obviously is not, and given the strength of her painting, nor does she need to - a caring editor would have demanded that she pick a single narrative conceit and strike a third of length for each manuscript.
Nevertheless I’m recommending them here to my fellow artists and art-interested readers. Self-Portrait reveals important insights into the School of London and the underpinnings of Paul’s art. Letters provides a useful object lesson about how imaginatively an artist can delve into another artist’s work. The former has a chapter that discusses both paintings I mentioned in the above review. The latter is an excavation of the soul as thorough as anything else I’ve read, as Paul contemplates the similarities between her story and John’s (John had an affair with the much older Rodin) and ponders the meaning of the differences. When their stories collide, the total lack of pretense in Paul’s writing only makes the prose more evocative:
Lucian had Rodin’s sculpture Iris on his sitting-room table. Iris is a messenger of the gods in Greek mythology. Rodin made several versions; Lucian owned the headless version. The ecstatic bronze figure of Iris has one leg raised and held by her hand, so that her genitals are exposed and form the central focus. Lucian was inspired by this work to paint nudes lying and sitting in a similarly exposing position. He said that he’d like the head to be just another limb. He was obsessed with genitalia, both male and female. Lucian worked from one point, and the rest of the painting developed and radiated around it. When he worked from a nude where the legs were splayed, he would always begin from the pubic area and work outwards. He started from what interested him most.
This passage weighs on the brief recollection that follows of the early years of their relationship, for the obvious reason, but also because she has perceived it as a fellow technician. Without saying so, it’s clear that Paul the woman wishes it had been otherwise, while Paul the artist realizes that it could not have been.
The only books allowed in my studio, unless I’m drawing a study, are technical manuals and artists writing in their own words. Paul’s titles now occupy the latter shelf, near Anne Truitt’s essential Daybook and Philip Guston’s I Paint What I Want to See. They hold up beside them and everything else on it.
Update prompted by a reader comment: Willing, that is, according to a certain understanding of will. By my standards the manner in which they began their courtship was predatory on his part, but it’s clear that my standards were not relevant to their situation. Freud and Paul were involved from 1978 to 1988 and their son, as best as I can tell from Self-Portrait, was conceived quite deliberately in 1984. Paul ended the relationship.
To say that a teenaged artist had a willing romantic relationship with her teacher — a lopsided relationship of a powerful older mentor and an adoring student, is outrageous and dangerously misguided in today’s MeToo environment.