Letters from Celia Paul to Gwen John
LETTERS TO GWEN JOHN. BY CELIA PAUL. New York Review Books, 2022. 352 pages.
IF TRUTH AND ARTIFICE OPPOSED, we would have neither painting, nor poetry, nor speech, nor life. Yet there is a tension, indisputable, incorrigible, a blockage in the flow of perception, thought and action, as the dreams that live in the strange interior take shape and enter the shared reality of an artwork. Celia Paul, both in her painting and in her writing, is a formidable guardian of her own inner life, as well as an attentive chronicler of what it means to cross a barely perceptible boundary, barely there, and yet it is the place where the truth emerges, is in play, is indistinguishable from lies. Letters to Gwen Johnthe new epistolary memoir of the British artist (after that of 2019 self-portrait), is a profound act of truth made possible by the heart-pounding risk of lingering on this contested frontier. Paul’s writing is a kind of ritual, as well as a pilgrimage, in which she leads us to those hidden places where understanding is irrelevant, and simply invites us to dwell with her and with whom else. she summons.
The book includes a series of letters to the Welsh painter Gwen John (1876-1939), as well as a number of short essays reflecting, as Paul puts it, “Gwen John’s life as it intersects or comes into conflict with mine”. The obvious biographical similarities between the two women – Paul was the lover of Lucian Freud, while John was the sister of the famous cartoonist Auguste and lover of Rodin, relationships that threatened to overshadow each woman’s work – give way to deeper affinities in art and in life. .
Both are portrait painters of extraordinary depth and insight. Their women especially, with often tense or vexed expressions, are fully alive, not so much representations of a person as of that person resurrected in a new aspect. But also in these paintings, as well as in their many landscapes and still lifes, there is, in the limitation of color and contrast, a patina of estrangement, a kind of blurring of the self, as if to see the subjects one have to look through the painter. The dynamism of life remains at a loving distance which, over time, turns into its own type of intimacy. Few hold opposites with such tenderness that they make them complements. Those who may seem to know each other well.
In Letters to Gwen John, Paul refers to several of his own paintings in connection with John’s, although the color plates often do not directly follow or precede their descriptions. Either the reader encounters them apparently without comment, to find their textual reference in later pages – at which point an impression has formed which can only be partially displaced by the interpretation offered by the author – or they appear a few pages later. late, when a painting you haven’t seen yet has already become a memory. Such distance, again, seems to act not so much as an obstacle to intimacy, but rather as its condition.
How to proceed from this fine line is what separates Celia Paul from Gwen John. The powerful sexism of the culture in which John worked does not seem to have affected his career as much as his own contempt for public, not to say mundane, life which expressed itself in its increasingly extreme isolation. She seems to have harbored an intense ambivalence towards those who wanted to help her professionally, and as her work began to gain recognition she withdrew further, eventually succumbing to her own negligence in Meudon, outside of Paris (though that she died, as Paul points out, after having made a last voyage at sea, an object of fascination for the two artists). Her work, though now well known, never attained Rodin’s fame, nor entirely escaped his shadow, although she was depicted, with the help of American collector John Quinn, in the legendary Armory Show in 1913, the same year, she was received into the Catholic Church. She never married, had no children, and her many infatuations after Rodin’s death were intense but fleeting, burning out or passing out, each breakup turning her even more inward. .
Paul, on the other hand, has more or less escaped comparison and seems to have found a way to balance his need for solitude with a richly populated life. She has been the subject of individual and collective exhibitions in major galleries since the end of the 1980s; a collaboration with Hilton Als resulted, among others, in exhibitions at the Gallery Met in New York (2015) and the Yale Center for British Art (2019). Paul speaks of this intensely loving friendship as a transformation of his personal and professional life, which have always been intertwined, but never so happily. She expresses a tenacious, nagging pain, even a regret, of her own management of relations: with Freud; with their child, Frank; with his mother, father and sisters. But today, at sixty-one, she exhibits internationally and lives alone by choice while enjoying a close bond with her son and young family. In the opening passages, she describes her mother’s desire for withdrawal and solitude, a desire that acts as a bridge, connecting herself, her mother, and John. At the end of the book, Paul has taken care of his mother in her last illness and is about to do the same for her husband, the philosopher Steven Kupfer.
Kupfer has since passed away, apparently between the composition and the production of the book, and Paul closes the acknowledgments with a final word on what he meant to her: “Words cannot describe how I feel. I painted him in his boat on the lake in Austria: a prayer of gratitude for his life which he shared with me. This painting appears about 120 pages earlier in the text, a blue wash covering the tiny figure in a manner reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich. Monk by the sea, yet crossed by a bewitching tenderness, so that nature seems not to annihilate the rower, but rather to welcome him into himself, that is to say at home. The letter preceding this reproduction indicates that he is sick, and Paul asks John to pray for them. By the time we learn the background to the painting’s emergence, Kupfer has joined John on the other side of the divide, where much of Paul’s desire seems to take him.
Through Covid-19 lockdowns, visions of environmental collapse, impending loss of her husband, memories of pain, Paul struggles, or perhaps just lingers, on the border, however fleeting, between all his worldly preoccupations and the endless questioning of his work:
I reflect on how to reconcile living and valuing life while renouncing it, and how it might be possible for me to tame and curb my desire, my anxiety and my loneliness by knowing when a painting is finished or a no one left, knowing how to move forward resolutely, without resignation, but with peace.
Sometimes she wishes she were more like John, or, more accurately, she wishes she could live more fully in the side of herself that resembles her ghostly counterpart, abandoning the flesh for the spirit, the day-to-day concerns of life, even in the balance achieved by Paul, ultimately eclipsed by the demands of art.
This desire points to Paul’s idiosyncratic Christian perspective, an affinity she peeks at but does not directly illuminate. But then his father was an Anglican missionary and later a bishop. His sister Jane is a theologian and married to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (who wrote the catalog text for the 2012 exhibition: Gwen John and Celia Paul: Parallel Painters). She must have heard over and over again that in the gospels, Jesus demands that his disciples abandon not only their possessions, but also their families. Extreme call, certainly: the apostolic life is also the life of the martyr. Few choose it, and none do it perfectly. But perhaps there is no purity in the pursuit of one’s vocation, no final clarity that would confirm that one was honest, one was good. Paul closes the book by bidding farewell to John, asking for his help in reaching peace not for now and forever, but “at last.” Until then there is only the work in progress, the careful maintenance of its conditions, and the people, living in this world or the next, whom one could call upon and by whom one could to be called.