Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Books: On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

"The Misses Williamson inspired in her the gift of transforming the everyday that has enriched my whole life." Cumming, Laura: On Chapel Sands, Chatto & Windus, London 2019, p.145*

Laura Cumming writes about art like no other critic and with great sensitivity and empathy towards her subjects, evoking the life behind the work. Her books on self-portraits and Velázquez were both outstanding, and her most recent, a memoir about her mother and thus a deeply personal project, is no exception - I read it in April and still think about it almost every day.

The photograph shown in the last image above is reproduced early on in the book and then again at the very end, with a revelation that moved me to tears (not the only time while reading this book) and that has been hinted at in some articles and reviews, but I don't want to include any spoilers here.

Cumming's art critic's eye is evident throughout and she brings alive the art of famous artists (Bruegel's "Fall of Icarus" is central to the book) as well as artworks by her relatives, some acknowledged and celebrated during their lifetime - her father's, who died prematurely of cancer -, others hidden and only freed from obscurity through this labour of love - the photograph that looks like a Vermeer painting, taken by her grandfather, a "travelling salesman who would like to have been an artist", with dreams unfulfilled and buried. Her mother was a gifted artist who gave up painting when she got married, as she felt there "was only room for one painter", but she took up weaving instead, painting compositions with wool.

Cumming unravels her mother's life and the secrets around her disappearance as a young child (when she was abducted from the beach) with the help of images, constructing a biography via the interpretation of pictures both real - photographs, paintings - and those formed in the mind. She also quotes passages from her mother's own memoir, which like her daughter's is beautifully written and was a birthday gift to Laura. The book is suffused with her mother's artistic sensibility and ability to "transform the everyday".

I don't write detailed book reviews here, and I am hesitant to sum up the content. I noticed that a lot of the marketing centered on the kidnapping, a sensationalist approach that is misleading and does the book a disservice. While the book does relate a real-life mystery, there are so many layers to it: It is about family and memory, community and the individual, the psychology of identity and consciousness, art, the power of images and objects, silence and lies, class, the sea, and most importantly, about love in its many forms. It is a delicate and intimate piece of life writing and an exquisite meditation on loss.

*The US title is Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother's Disappearance as a Child

See also: Laura Cumming talks about On Chapel Sands in this interview in The New York Times

Friday, July 17, 2020


I have been painting and drawing a lot of people and animals, especially portraits of family and friends. If anyone is interested, I posted some work-in-progress photos of two of the paintings above on my long-neglected art blog (though the plan is to merge the two blogs in an effort to simplify). At one point I had all my nephews keeping me company in the studio, albeit in 2-D!

While I sometimes have people sit for me, the examples shown here were all based on photographs and screenshots of paused videos - the latter works very well, as I can choose the 'pose' from a much wider range. I tend to start out with a very rough sketch and let the face emerge gradually.

In Enda's portrait (third picture above - when he was one year old and pre-haircut, for those who know him only with short hair) he is wearing a soft knitted top my sister had made for him that is tied at the back with a ribbon. I loved painting the stocking stitch and the ribbon and the light in his hair. With Henry (fourth picture) it was the oval of the snap fastener on his little shoulder that caught my attention - sometimes it is those small details that I find particularly poignant.

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"