Friday, July 3, 2020

Love, compassion, light: Celia Paul's Self-Portrait

This memoir by the artist Celia Paul has accompanied me for the last few months, moving from bedside table to coffee table to dining table to my desk in the studio. I read it almost in one go, but I have been going back over certain passages and revisiting the reproductions of her work and the photographs.

While substantial parts of the book are about Lucian Freud (another artist whose work I admire - Celia Paul was one of his lovers and muses and they had a son together), she emphasises that he is made part of her story instead of the other way around, "as is usually the case".

I was more intrigued by her relationship with her family and her mother in particular and the work that arose (and continues to arise) from those family bonds. Her paintings of her mother and of her sisters are very moving and tender. Paul does not consider herself a portrait painter, but rather an "autobiographer and chronicler" of her life and her family, telling their story in images.

The memoir charts finding her own voice as an artist and breaking away from the role of the muse. So many artist couples have played out the dynamic of the woman making sacrifices that enable their partner to thrive. Paul shares a lot of insight into the challenges and obstacles to becoming an artist that women face and offers up her experience of working out "a strategy" to carve out the solitude that is essential for making art. This involves not living with her husband, as she needs to have her own private space*. She also talks about the conflict between motherhood and artistic creation, how being with her son makes her unable to work, as "all my concerns are for him" when he is present, and how she feels the guilt and separation acutely.

This interview includes interesting observations about Paul's connection to other artists (I love her voice; she emanates such calm and poise). She feels "this moral quality to Constable, this kind of love and compassion that comes through...", informed by familiarity with the subject matter: "you can't do anything unless you understand it".  As she writes in her memoir,

"I only ever work from people and places that I know well. This insider knowledge gives me freedom to take liberties with the forms and structures of the faces and figures, the clouds, the waves, the houses. [...] If I know my subject well, it's almost as if I don't need to look at them in order to give them intense attention, and yet I need their physical presence."
(Paul, Celia: Self-Portrait, Jonathan Cape, London 2019, p.3)

This is what gives her paintings their intimate and empathic quality. Even in reproductions in print or on the screen the spectral light in her paintings is powerfully conveyed - her work contains a "juxtaposition of the mystical with direct observation" (p.5). Her mother would regularly travel to London from Cambridge, climb the 80 steps to Paul's flat and pose for long periods of time, during which both artist and sitter would enter into a meditative, elevated state. Paul often uses spiritual language to describe the process of painting people, and her sisters and husband also give their perspective of what it is like to sit for her, by all accounts a transcendental experience.

In the interview the curator asks her about the evanescence of her seascapes and Paul reveals that she only really started working from water after her mother's death, when "forms broke up, nothing seemed permanent. So my subject seemed to be water, in a new way." She also talks about her "struggle between dark and light", with the light always emerging from the darkness, and the influence of Goya, how the light behind the figures in his family group paintings seems to be the subject of the painting, and how there is a "melancholy feeling about that, that the light will actually outlast the figures".

The language in the book is often sparse, and this minimalism, coupled with clear-eyed honesty, carries an even stronger emotional impact. There is one passage, when describing her mother's childhood, that relates a tragedy her mother was witness to and haunted by, and it is something I haven't been able to get out of my head.

Gwen John was another inspiration that is apparent in the two paintings above and below, in the containment and stillness of the self-portraits (John is also another example of a female artist having an all-consuming affair with an older male artist - Auguste Rodin. It appears Freud expected a similar subservience from Paul).

The book is also a meditation on the intersection between the written word and visual art. Paul says writing the memoir - she had not written much previously, apart from early diary entries and poems, and found 'freedom of speech' in painting instead - has affected her art: "I feel a new assurance in my painting, through a growing confidence about using words again."(p.5)

* Her husband Steven Kupfer wrote this essay about Celia Paul's art: "Celia Paul - Painting her Life"

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