LETTERS TO GWEN JOHN. BY CELIA PAUL. New York Review Books, 2022. 352 pages.
IF TRUTH AND ARTIFICE WERE OPPOSED, we would have no painting, no poetry, no speech, no life. Yet there is tension, undoubtable, incorrigible, a catch in the flow of perception, thought, and deed, as the dreams that live in some strange interior take shape and enter the shared reality of a work. Celia Paul, in both her painting and her writing, is a formidable guardian of her own inner life, as well as a careful chronicler of what it means to traverse a boundary that is barely perceptible, hardly there at all, and yet is the place where truth emerges, hangs in the balance, is not quite distinguishable from a lie. Letters to Gwen John, the British artist’s new epistolary memoir (following 2019’s Self-Portrait), is a profound act of truth-telling made possible by the thrilling risk of tarrying at that contested border. Paul’s writing is a kind of ritual, as well as a pilgrimage, in which she leads us into those hidden places where understanding is beside the point, and invites us simply to dwell with her and whomever else she summons.
The book comprises a series of letters to the Welsh painter Gwen John (1876–1939), as well as a number of short essays reflecting on, as Paul puts it, “Gwen John’s life as it intersects, or conflicts, with mine.” The obvious biographical similarities between the two women—Paul was the lover of Lucian Freud, while John was the sister of famous draughtsman Augustus 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 portraitists of extraordinary depth and insight. Their women especially, often bearing strained or vexed expressions, are fully living, not so much representations of a person as that person brought to life under a new aspect. But equally in these paintings, as well as their many landscapes and still lifes, there is, in the limitation of color and contrast, a patina of remoteness, a kind of haze of self, as though to see the subjects we must look through the painter. The vibrancy of life remains at a loving remove, which, over time, transforms into its own kind of intimacy. Few hold contraries with such tenderness as to turn them into complements. Those who can seem to know each other well.
In Letters to Gwen John, Paul refers to many of her own paintings as they relate to John’s, though the color plates often do not directly follow or precede their descriptions. The reader either encounters them apparently without comment, only to find their textual reference in the later pages—by which time an impression has formed which can be only partially displaced by the author’s offered interpretation—or else they appear some pages later, when a painting one has not yet seen has already become a memory. Such distance, again, seems to act not so much as an impediment to intimacy, but rather its condition.
How to proceed from that subtle demarcation is what separates Celia Paul from Gwen John. The powerful sexism of the culture in which John worked seems not to have affected her career as much as her own scorn for public, not to say worldly, life, which expressed itself in her increasingly extreme seclusion. She seems to have harbored intense ambivalence about those who wanted to help her professionally, and as her work began to garner some recognition, she withdrew further, eventually succumbing to her own self-neglect in Meudon, outside Paris (though she died, as Paul emphasizes, having made one last trip to the sea, an object of fascination for both artists). Her work, though well-known by now, has never reached the renown of Rodin’s, nor has she ever fully escaped his shadow, despite being represented, with the help of the American collector John Quinn, in the storied Armory Show of 1913, the same year she was received into the Catholic Church. She never married, had no children, and her many infatuations following Rodin’s death were intense but fleeting, burning out or fading away, each break turning her still more inward.
Paul, by contrast, has more or less escaped the pale of comparison, and seems to have found a way to balance her need for solitude with a richly populated life. She has been the subject of solo and group exhibitions in major galleries since the late 1980s; a collaboration with Hilton Als resulted in, among other things, shows at Gallery Met in New York (2015) and the Yale Center for British Art (2019). Paul discusses this intensely loving friendship as a transformation in her personal and professional life, which had always been intertwined, but never before so happily. She expresses a persistent, gnawing pain, even regret, at her own handling of relationships: with Freud; with their child, Frank; with her mother and father and sisters. But now, at age sixty-one, she exhibits internationally and lives alone by choice while enjoying a close bond with her son and his young family. In early passages she describes her mother’s desire for withdrawal and solitude, a yearning that acts as a bridge, connecting herself, her mother, and John. By the end of the book, Paul has nursed her mother in her final illness and is preparing to do the same for her husband, the philosopher Steven Kupfer.
Kupfer has since died, seemingly between the book’s composition and production, and Paul closes the acknowledgments with a final word on what he has meant to her: “Words cannot describe how I feel. I have been painting him in his rowing boat on the lake in Austria: a prayer of gratitude for his life which he shared with me.” This painting appears some 120 pages earlier in the text, a blue wash overwhelming the tiny figure in a way reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, yet shot through with a mesmerizing tenderness, so that nature seems not to annihilate the rower, but rather to welcome him into itself, which is to say, home. The letter preceding this reproduction indicates that he is ill, and Paul asks John to pray for them. By the time we learn the context of the painting’s emergence, Kupfer has joined John on the other side of the divide, where so much of Paul’s longing seems to take her.
Through Covid-19 lockdowns, visions of environmental collapse, the impending loss of her husband, memories of pain, Paul struggles, or perhaps simply lingers, at the boundary, however ephemeral, between all of her worldly concerns and the never-ending questioning of her work:
I think about how to reconcile living and valuing life while at the same time renouncing it, and how it might be possible for me to tame and curb my longing, anxiety and loneliness by knowing when a painting is done or a person has left, knowing how to move on purposefully, without resignation, but with peace.
At times, she wishes she were more like John, or, more precisely, she wishes she could live more fully in the side of herself that resembles her ghostly correspondent, abandoning the flesh for the spirit, the daily concerns of life, even in the balance Paul has struck, finally eclipsed by the requirements of art.
This desire points to Paul’s idiosyncratically Christian perspective, an affinity she glances toward but does not directly illuminate. But then, her father was an Anglican missionary and later a bishop. Her sister Jane is a theologian and married to former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (who wrote the text to the catalogue of the 2012 exhibition: Gwen John and Celia Paul: Painters in Parallel). She must have heard over and over again that in the Gospels Jesus demands that his followers forsake not only their possessions, but their families, as well. An extreme call, to be sure: The apostolic life is also the life of the martyr. Few choose it, and none do so perfectly. But perhaps there is no purity in following 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 her for help in attaining peace not for now and always, but “at the last.” Until then, there is only the ongoing work, the careful maintenance of its conditions, and the people, living in this world or the next, whom one might call and be called by.