Seeing and Solitude: On Celia Paul’s “Letters to Gwen John”

July 6, 2022   •   By Mairead Small Staid

Letters to Gwen John

Celia Paul

IN SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA’S Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1559), Campi stands before an easel, putting the finishing touches on a portrait of his student. Wearing a plain, dark coat, he glances back at the viewer, his pale face and hand convincingly shadowed. Anguissola, in the painting-within-a-painting, is more radiantly dressed, in red threaded with gold; her own face and hand are delicately outlined but notably flatter than her then-more-famous teacher’s, decidedly two-dimensional. The contrast between the painted artist and the painted painting offers a showcase for the painter’s skills — Anguissola’s, that is. She is both subject and maker of this remarkable work, this simultaneous self-portrait and mise en abyme, a provocative, intelligent rendering of the woman as both seer and seen.

The contemporary British painter Celia Paul is engaged in a similar project in her two recent works of nonfiction, Self-Portrait (2019) and Letters to Gwen John (2022), both published by New York Review Books in handsome hardcover editions with color plates of the artist’s work throughout. A maker of luminous figurative paintings — landscape, still life, portraiture — Paul turns, in her prose, to illuminating the more abstract canvas of an inner life. She proves as gifted in ink as she is in oil: her sentences are precise, often staccato, as if she is feeling her way through a thought part by unbearable part. She uses repetition as a poet might, or a dancer: as a way of slowing and giving symmetry to the mess of forward-moving time. Her commas, and their absences, feel highly charged.

Reading Self-Portrait, I was absorbed for reasons I found difficult to pinpoint. The encounter resembled that of certain other memoirs — Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies (2012), William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days (2015) — in the way my own thoughts seemed to find room for their expression between the lines. I glanced up often, read slowly. Perhaps this resemblance was due to the fact that each of these books is an account of something at which the author excels — painting for Paul, swimming for Shapton, surfing for Finnegan — activities that can become more difficult to describe the better you are at them. Description suffuses the pages, nonetheless. “The view is spectacular,” Paul writes, of a long-ago day in Bristol with her lover, the painter Lucian Freud. “Grey and deserted. Stratas of woodland on one side and stratas of buildings on the other. My hair is tucked into the collar of my coat and he frees it for me.”

A certain naïveté runs under the sentences of Self-Portrait, as if Paul is not merely recounting but reentering her younger years. This sense is amplified by the inclusion of letters, poems, and diary entries dating from the 1970s, when Paul moved to London to attend The Slade School of Fine Art. There, at 18, she met the 55-year-old Freud, whose presence dominates the first half of the book. The brutal imbalance of their relationship is relayed in cool, distancing prose, and yet red-hot details emerge, full of anguish and infatuation. “He is shining and grand and cruel today,” she writes, after waking from a nightmare. “All the traffic lights are green for us,” she writes, of a glittering late-night drive.

Paul’s family, particularly her mother, replaces Freud as the central figure of Self-Portrait’s second half. “My mother no longer had any hurt feelings, she no longer thought that I was treating her as an object when she sat for me,” Paul writes, describing the arduous process of her mother’s twice-weekly travel from Cambridge to London to model — anxiously, bag-laden, and often sleep-deprived — for her daughter. “I would wait at the door of my flat and listen to her gasping as she laboured up the eighty steps,” Paul says. “She would stop frequently and I would hear her groaning. I would call out, ‘Are you all right?’ She would cough loudly and then resume her laborious ascent.” We are not given Paul’s thoughts in this scene; her gaze is hard and entirely external, looking down from a great height. Her subject has yet to sit down, but the painter is already at work.

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In Letters to Gwen John, Paul turns her unrelenting gaze inward, though the book is ostensibly outward-facing. Part essay and part epistle, Letters is a dual portrait, Paul rendering Paul rendering John, the Welsh painter born in 1876. “I would like you to pay attention to me,” Paul writes to the long-dead artist — an impossibility, so she pays the attention herself. Recalling the garden of the house in India where she lived until she was five, Paul writes with a rich palette: “The changing rose that began the day pure white slowly became first a delicate opalescent pink by mid-morning, then carmine by noon, deepening and darkening until by the last light it glowed a crimson ember.” The names of paints are evoked throughout the book, capitalized as characters: Payne’s Grey, Prussian Blue, Vandyck Brown. We laymen are left to imagine the vital distinctions between Brilliant Yellow and Naples Yellow, Lemon Yellow and Old Holland Yellow Light.

To see art through an artist’s eyes is a constant pleasure in Paul’s written work. “There is nothing in it that is naïve, primitive, or searching,” Paul writes, of John’s Young Woman with a Violin. “[W]e can tell from the fall of the cloth the exact weight and texture of the material.” But Paul is interested in John as more than a painting tutor. Though nearly a century separates their lives, Paul feels a connection between them, in matters of both work and life (or, rather, in the inseparability of those matters). John also attended The Slade, which had admitted women since 1871 and — a rarity — allowed them to attend life-drawing classes, painting from nude models. And John, too, had a decade-long relationship with a much older and more famous artist, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

“Lucian symbolised both home and family to me, as Rodin did for Gwen,” Paul writes. John had met Rodin when she moved to Paris in the early 1900s and began working as a model to support her own art. She posed for him, their affair began, and their roles became fixed: he the artist, she the muse. Isn’t it always the way? Well, no — or it needn’t be. But John’s love for Rodin was so consuming that she gave up painting for a time to devote herself more fully to his work, his life. “He often compared me unfavourably to Gwen John,” Paul says of Freud, regarding her refusal to do the same.

Though we might recoil at Freud’s comment, the real threat doesn’t lie in his desire. The real threat lies in hers. “You and I know, don’t we, Gwen, about this particularly addictive poison: the waiting and the yearning?” Paul writes. “But what would we do if it was requited? I fear that my talent would shrivel up inside me. I know that I would channel my love away from my work and I’d be lost. I might continue to paint, but some vital ingredient — the intensity and edge — would be gone.” Paul’s love for Freud posed a danger to her work, as John’s for Rodin did to hers, and this ancient battle between one passion and another is pitched on the pages of Paul’s books, a pitiless recounting. “Remember / I have no eyes,” read the final lines of a poem Paul wrote as a young woman, about watching Freud as he slept. She only ever drew him in that state, his own eyes closed. The single painting she attempted of him was left unfinished.

She could not see him, in other words — not then, anyway — and to be unable to see is a death sentence for a painter. Freud was the seer in their relationship, Paul the one seen, a position she loathed: unlike John, Paul never modeled professionally, and only posed for Freud after their relationship began. “I was not a good sitter,” she writes. “I felt alternately claustrophobic and resentful.” In a letter to Freud quoted in Self-Portrait, she contradicts this later acknowledgment, lying to him or to herself: “I know you never force me into anything. I sit for you because I like doing it and because I admire you. It’s just that I would like to come to you without this feeling that my life is a waste of breath apart from being with you.”

I wonder if such a feeling was the one that subsumed John, in her years with Rodin. “I am better alone,” she wrote in her notebook, when she had extricated herself from the sculptor and begun to paint again. In Paul’s epistolary portrait, John is a woman of extremes: always wholly devoted, whether to another or to her solitude. “Leave everybody and let them leave you,” reads another of John’s notebook entries. “Then only will you be without fear.”

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Fear is a function of being seen, in Letters, whether by intimates or by strangers. Young women — particularly those attempting to move through the world and its male spheres — are acutely visible: the threat of sexual violence is threaded through the book. John writes, in her own letters and notebooks, of men approaching her on the streets of Paris; Paul writes, a century later, of men approaching her on the streets of London. John was groped by a landscape painter; an intruder entered the young Paul’s apartment, where she lived by herself. “I loved being alone,” she writes, “but now I felt nervous about it.” It is an unshakable cruelty that solitude might engender such risks, when solitude is precisely what is required for one’s work.

After leaving home as a teenager, Paul never again shared a living space. At 25, she gave birth to a son, Frank, but he was raised by his grandmother in Cambridge. In 2011, she married the philosopher Steven Kupfer, but they kept separate homes until his death last year. Kupfer didn’t even have a key to her apartment. “We remain remote,” Paul writes to John, another connection between them. Yet Paul’s remoteness, which seems so enviously assured to me, strikes her as lacking next to the intensity of John’s self-containment, post-Rodin. “There’s a definiteness to all your decisions,” Paul writes. “Whereas I — I have been conflicted and nearly torn apart by opposite desires. […] [T]he barriers that I have put up between myself and the outside world have never been as secure as yours.”

Paul’s admiration of John’s isolation approaches a religious devotion; aren’t her letters like candles lit at an altar, like prayer? Art is the god they share, and Paul finds in John a believer more ardent than she thinks herself capable of being. “She has made her choice: she is going to side with loss and solitude, like the saints,” Paul writes, describing John’s Self-Portrait in a Red Blouse. “She is going to be a great artist, even if it means complete deprivation. Her gaze is directed at the viewer, but she is self-enclosed and remote. She would not answer if I spoke to her.” Saints never do.

It is a blessing for readers, then, that Paul, despite her asceticism (her apartment is strikingly bare, like a monk’s cell), is no saint. Though she remains attracted to the extremes, with their piety and their rigor, she has found an equilibrium: able to live alone and do her work, able to love and to be loved. Her art does not suffer for it. “[T]he delight of being with him lit up my life and lit up my painting,” she writes, of Frank. She is able to paint Kupfer, as she never could Freud: she can see him clearly. John’s is the purer approach, perhaps — no child, no husband — but why should purity be the objective? Harder to delineate, in paint or in prose, is the mess of the middle ground, the tug of those equal but opposite desires that shape our days.

“I want to include my ‘hesitations.’ I want to preserve the sense of searching and discovery. I don’t want these prints of mine to be ‘definite and clean,’” Paul writes, repeating a phrase of John’s and rejecting it. “I’d like the image to be fretted with pencil marks. I’d like the form to emerge gradually. I want these prints to be an intimate and true record of my questioning encounter with my subject matter.”

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As the questioning encounter of Letters comes to a close, Paul describes a photograph taken of herself and Freud, late in his life, long after their romantic relationship had ended. “I look tight-lipped and submissive,” she writes. “I did not feel submissive.” However long we might look at the photograph, then, she won’t be seen. This is the trick: to remain the seer in any situation. To never surrender your eyes. “You have spoken about how you prefer to live your life in the shadows,” Paul writes to John. “We have lived our lives overshadowed by our own choosing. We can be free if we are unseen.”

The word Paul uses — overshadowed — is the title of a painting she completed in 2020, in which her initial aim was to echo Sofonisba Anguissola’s striking composition of four-and-a-half centuries before. The work was to be a self-portrait with Freud in Bernardino Campi’s role, painting the pictured Paul. But this double portrait didn’t work, in Paul’s estimation, and the finished painting shows only the artist, sitting alone in her studio, wearing a long dress streaked with paint in countless hues, the residue of decades. “I painted him out,” she says of Freud. “He left a shadow.”

In 1996, restorers working on Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola found a shadow of their own, a ghost in the painting. Where Anguissola’s left hand hangs daintily in the finished work, holding a glove, another left hand has lain all this time alongside it, buried under varnish. This hidden hand isn’t inertly posed but reaches, up and out — out of the canvas-within-a-canvas, as if to guide Campi’s own hand, as if to take his mahl stick and brush. She is the maker of her own making, this subject, this artist, subjected to no one’s gaze but her own, the most piercing of all. “A woman painter needs to have all her wits about her when she is making a self-portrait,” Paul writes. In her own Self-Portrait, and in the oblique self-portrait of Letters to Gwen John, she has gathered not only her wits but her wonder, her ambition, the fearsome range of her sight. What a discomfiting pleasure to find yourself, when reading, fixed within it.

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Mairead Small Staid is a writer living in Minnesota. Her first book, The Traces, will be published by A Strange Object in September.