Celia Paul: The Years of Magical Thinking
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In March 1972, Elizabeth Bishop was much exercised by Robert Lowell’s trespass, the use of his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s private letters in The Dolphin, a late sequence of poems about falling in love with Caroline Blackwood – novelist, Guinness heir, ex-wife of Lucian Freud. Bishop resorted to italics: ‘art just isn’t worth that much.

It depends on the art.

Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait is a bald account of how much she has sacrificed to art. In the current climate, her memoir will be read as a woman courageously, tenaciously reclaiming her own story, resolving not to be a bit part, an erotic episode, a by-blow in the sexual adventurism of Lucian Freud. She was his lover for ten years and had a son by him. The note of independence is struck explicitly in her preface and in the main narrative itself. Finally, she is Painter and Model, the title of a 2012 painting – self-sufficient at last. Freud died in 2011, so the painting is a marker: ‘I am both artist and sitter. By looking at myself I don’t need to stage a drama about power; I am empowered by the very fact that I am representing myself as I am: a painter.’

Before 2012, it is easy, and persuasive, to read her life as the exploitation, the abuse even, of a ductile young woman by a powerful older man, an artist influential in his field. She was 18 when she met him at The Slade. He was 55. When their son was born, he was 62. The relationship lasted ten years. One gets very little sense of the tactile experience shared by the lovers. The prurient will be disappointed. When she confronts him with an infidelity, they make love: ‘I don’t sleep all night. I lie shaking with emotion. He sleeps very fitfully and on waking each time he draws me to him and my tears run onto his chest… He strokes my hair. Then he guides my hand down. I draw my hand away. [my italics]’ A rare moment of physical truth.

On one occasion, Freud brought up the example of Gwen John, who stopped painting while she was engaged in a passionate affair with Rodin: ‘I felt there was a hidden reproach to me in his words, and that Lucian felt that was what I should do.’ She was tougher than that.

Examples of her toughness, her ruthlessness, her single-mindedness: her husband, the philosopher Steven Kupfer, doesn’t have a key to the flat, opposite the British Museum, where she lives and works (a present from Lucian Freud). When her son is born: ‘my mother [who lives in Cambridge] willingly became his main carer.’ ‘After just three weeks in my mother’s house I went back to my studio in London, to my painting and to Lucian.’ The son later finds ‘sitting for [her] arduous and boring, but I continued to make him do it.’ Her mother is also a sitter: ‘I peremptorily instructed my mother about what position she should assume: she should lie on her back and raise one leg slightly. When she faltered and didn’t get the position just as I had wanted, I shouted at her. I was very cruel. She cried and said that I was treating her like an object. I responded irritably to her tears and said she didn’t believe in me.’

The mother is a resource to be used pitilessly, Celia Paul noting her ‘rounded back’ as she descends the steep stairs and begins her return journey to Cambridge. The egotism and competitiveness began early: ‘when my younger sister Kate was born, I was so traumatised that I resolved to die. I refused to eat. I became really ill and was diagnosed with leukemia… I know I had brought the illness on myself in order to get my mother’s attention. I succeeded. My mother gave me her devotion for the rest of her life.’

At her boarding school, another girl, Linda Brandon, also paints and writes poetry. They are in love with each other in a schoolgirl way, but they are competitors: ‘the surge of jealousy I felt was sickening and I thought I was going to pass out.’ The atmosphere is so heated that eventually the other girl goes to another school.

At one point, she describes her love for Freud as ‘more like a sickness’. Freud is loving but not exclusively and absolutely devoted to this sickness. With the childhood ‘leukemia’, her mother had been single-minded and continued the intensive care into adulthood. Freud was intermittent, distracted, divided. She therefore attempts a cure herself: she tries suicide (pills and whisky); she takes heroin. In lodgings at Haverstock Hill, there are ‘seven months of self-destructive drinking and promiscuity. The quiet presence of kind Mary Bone [her landlady] acted like a sort of superego against which I rebelled. When she was away I held drunken parties, where my guests made long-distance phone calls using her phone and broke her bannisters as they lurched up her stairs. We spilt wine on her carpets and vomited on her bathroom floor. I was very cruel and didn’t care if my behaviour hurt the people I loved. My brain was too blurred by alcohol most of the time to take responsibility for my actions. I had many casual lovers. Lucian visited regularly, too.’

She isn’t quite the pliant innocent our contemporary narrative requires. Two months after she gives birth to her son, ‘I fell briefly in love with an eighteen-year-old Cambridge student who I met on the train. I was twenty-five… But I was still deeply involved with Lucian. I simply loved him more. My attachment to the Cambridge student passed after three months.’

And what finally brings the relationship with Lucian Freud to an end isn’t, I think, the reason she offers – her realisation that her primacy no longer holds, that there is another, more prized partner in his life. In October 1986, she has a successful solo exhibition at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Cork Street. She is launched. She is 26, a month short of 27. A strikingly precocious debut. She is, she believes, independent artistically. But this is how she presents it to herself and us: ‘Lucian was very loving to me throughout my pregnancy, but he found it difficult to deal with the fact that I was preoccupied and not so readily available after the birth…’ This account of their drift apart is self-serving and implausible: her mother was looking after her baby full-time. In fact, she was available: ‘after just three weeks in my mother’s house I went back to my studio in London, to my painting and to Lucian.’

Which brings us to the crux. Celia Paul sacrificed everything to her art. The paradigm is set with her schoolgirl competitor – loved but dumped. It cannot have escaped Celia Paul that Lucian Freud might be a useful mentor in the art world – someone who could introduce her to painters like Frank Auerbach and show her work to dealers like Anthony d’Offay. Which he did. The initial relationship had surely an element of calculation as well as being a coup de foudre. She wanted to succeed. So, initially, it was she who approached him that fatal day at The Slade.

Her interpretations aren’t always accurate or unquestionable. When Freud painted her nude, in particular her large breasts, ‘I felt his scrutiny intensify’. The implication is that his gaze is cruel: ‘I felt exposed and hated the feeling. I cried throughout these sessions.’ Tears are traditionally described as women’s weapons. But here, you might think of tears not as weak, but as truly weaponised. After all, Freud and she were already lovers of some standing. Freud tells her how much her body pleases him. To no avail. The tears are for and against herself and the physical truth of her body, which is unsatisfactory as far as she is concerned. The tears are an expression of her chagrin. The fashion, she tells us, was for physical androgyny.

And how good are her paintings? – for which she has sacrificed so much, so superstitiously, so relentlessly, as if dedication and self-immolation were crucial, indispensable, magical requirements of art. She writes openly that ‘you do need to be selfish. Ideally, you need “to care and not to care”.’ She believes she is following Lucian Freud’s example, but there is a difference. She pays lip service to love – see her acknowledgements page for fulsome tributes to her nearest and dearest – but what emerges is rather an arid egotism. She renounces. Elizabeth Bishop’s vehement declaration – ‘art just isn’t worth that much’ – requires addressing.  Lucian Freud was dedicated to his art but he gave up nothing. He lived his life to the full – gambling, fornicating, fighting, chatting to his sitters, engaging. Painting. Working.

His art is an art of concentrated looking. Celia Paul’s art is mystical and crepuscular, not derivative, but variously and obviously influenced, though not by Freud. He is a realist painter, told by Richard Hamilton that it was no longer possible to paint in that conventional way any longer. And yet his paintings aren’t in the least conventional. He is sui generis. Uneven, with a weak, incompetent, quasi-surrealist-primitivist start and a rather clumsy final period, but with a brilliant, incomparable middle period, beginning, you might say, with the famous, formidable, tiny lost portrait of Francis Bacon. Celia Paul isn’t anywhere near as good but she isn’t negligible, as her recent exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery demonstrates. This autobiography may be an escape from Lucian Freud, in one sense, but it is also a canny promotional device. Freud is still useful to her career. Without him, no publicity.

The trouble with radical independence, the repudiation of Freud’s realist example, restricting yourself to yourself as model, with your mother and four sisters as supplementary selves, is that you are doomed to an inevitable monotony. Celia Paul’s self-portraits show a face not unlike the distressed, haggard features of E.T. – the long upper lip, the endless column of the neck, the strange asymmetrical eyes, the right with a Sartrean cast. The slewed mouth of a stroke victim. A prominent single ligament, sometimes two, in the neck. Below the head, a Beckettian shroud, whose astringency reveals on close inspection a pattern – ghostly, blanched, decorative fabrics. See particularly Self-Portrait Standing (2019) with its autumnal oranges and golds. These self-portrait heads owe something to Giacometti paintings in their austere stylisation.

Gwen John is a frank, unsurprising influence in Room and Tower (2019) – the bed, the bare room, the Post Office Tower like a watermark, vague, totemic, outside the uncurtained window. In Front of the Museum (2008) has Paul’s profiled silhouette, long eyelashes, open lips, lit with outlined light, a bit like Man Ray’s (self-explanatory) technique of solarisation. The misty museum building has a six-line grid of steps. Down her back is khaki cross-hatching which might be a shawl or a boa.

There are five seascapes – all of them like woven cloth, one piece with different semi-abstract horizontals. Santa Monica (2019) shows sunlight on a beach, breaking waves, sea and sunset. Pleasing but not exactly new.

The best picture, ironically, is Lucian and Me (2019), a blurred painting reminiscent of Gerhard Richter. She is naked. Her pendulous breasts have, at their base, diffuse rosacea nipples. His face is obscured because he is turned to whisper something in her ear – and he in his white shirt is somehow exactly caught, rather brilliantly, by one of those unrepeatable, chancy moments of art. The two are joined tenderly. I was reminded of my favorite intimate moment in her memoir: ‘we have a bath and then make love. He says how much I please him. Then we fall asleep. I have a terrifying nightmare about a tidal wave. I wake Lucian and he strokes me and says “This is the anti-tidal wave squad” and I fall asleep again, peacefully.’ This is a very small double portrait (25.4 x 30.5 cm) which captures an exchange not unlike the tribadism of a couple of cats rubbing against each other. You can practically hear the contented purr in unison. And brought into being not by sacrifice but by the happenstance of the hand, and the great accident of art. Then the decision to accept the gift of pigment as it comes off the brush.

 

 


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