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Celia Paul: Reflections through her art and life

Celia Paul, Letters to Gwen John book and self-portrait
Celia Paul, Self-Portrait, 2021. Oil on canvas, 63.7 × 56.5 cm, 25 4/50 × 22 12/50 in. © Celia Paul. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro. Image of book cover courtesy of New York Review Books.

Spanning nearly 50 years, Celia Paul’s ethereal work offers rich areas for exploration.

I’m not sure how I begin, when I enter somewhere I don’t know. Meet someone I want to see, hear, learn about for the first or seventeenth time. To a bookstore or theater or museum, like where I am right now. Without expectation but hoping for something, inside of me to wake up. Is it the feeling of a chase, maybe? No, not quite a hunt but a circling. I wander the space before I identify the corners where I want to go. Then I stop there. 

I’m sitting on a bench looking out at the garden of the Rodin Museum. A garden constructed for the statues lingering in its labyrinth. But somehow here you are, the voice of you. 

Even though you’re not here. 

Celia Paul, Self-Portrait, 2021
Celia Paul, Self-Portrait, April 2021, 2021. Oil on canvas, 63.7 × 56.5 cm, 25 4/50 × 22 12/50 in. © Celia Paul. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

I started reading a book of yours in New York City. I finished it many months later, in two sittings at a café in Los Angeles. I tend to procrastinate in my reading until I get tired of the postponement and then I swallow, from first page to last in a few hours, sated. I then tend to go and drink some wine. 

I hadn’t heard of you before I read an article about your book in the Los Angeles Review of Books. A review of your second one, “Letters to Gwen John.” I didn’t realize it was a review until the second paragraph but by that point I couldn’t stop myself from continuing. On the whole I try not to read criticism too often. It distracts me. If I listen to an album following a review of it for instance, I tend not to be able to listen without hearing in my ears the filter ascribed to it by the critic. I’m too swayed by people who are opinionated. I’m seduced by visions. Memorizing them I too quickly pretend to experience the world outside of my own point of view. It can take time for me to return. I like people who pay attention. 

When art’s not meant to be legible. Instead, something that, as you know, exists to be ephemeral and material, mysterious and specific.

Maybe the review was in the New York Review of Books. But something in the writing of it made me know I needed to read. You. It was evident, from what the article noted about your search to situate yourself as artist and model on your own terms, that you’re not someone easily distracted. A person who doesn’t fling their focus, from one interest to a point of rage, then inspiration to a hallway that haunts them with flashes from walks taken between the corridor of their third-grade classroom and the bathroom. Someone who doesn’t catapult from thing to thing so that too quickly, they lose track of how to stay constant within themselves. 

You must be, I thought, someone who likes to be and isn’t just skilled, at stillness. I’ve been trying to become better at it myself, but it’s taken me so much more slowly than I wish it would. I’m trying to figure out how it can arrive to me easily, so I can start living with it soon. 

I left the review, determined to find you through your art. I scrolled through your paintings on the website of the gallery, Victoria Miro. I took screenshots of almost two dozen of your works, added them to a folder in Google Drive. Printed them all out at my local library and brought them back to my bedroom. Where I took a pair of scissors and cut around their edges. Pasted them across an entire wall, in rows of three four five four three. A honeycomb of you, an altar. Weeks of staring at them all with peppermint tea between my hands before going to sleep, did nothing. I couldn’t stop rushing, still late to the subway.

I suspect you don’t like being written about. After all, the rest of us must not do it too well. You’re surely endlessly questioned by journalists and art critics, about ridiculous details like what shoes you wear when you paint.

I’m now in a museum in Paris months away from then. In a city an ocean away from where I first learned about you, now looking at a pair of marble hands. You’ve never touched these but maybe, you’ve seen this sculpture live. Certainly in paintings, you’ve seen them painted by their owner. The hands of one of his models, Gwen John.

The work of which we are to speak here has been growing for years and grows every day like a forest, losing no hour or time. Passing amongst its thousand manifestations, one is overwhelmed by the wealth of the discoveries and inventions it embraces, and instinctively one looks for the two hands from which this world has come forth. One thinks of the smallness of human hands, of how soon they weary and of how little time is granted to their activity. And one longs to behold these hands which have lived the life of a hundred hands, of a nation of hands, that rose before daybreak to set out on the long pathway of this work. One asks about the owner of these hands.

–Rainer Maria Rilke

Often I’ve wondered where it comes from, the attention paid by so many to try to understand artists. When artists themselves are dedicating their lives to arriving at a midpoint between their instincts and experiences, in a world where clarity seems elusive. I’ve suspected this obsession’s sold as a cover instead. Within an examination of an artist lies a marketing trick, a pretext to justify the value of art in comparison with other more plastic fields. When art’s not meant to be legible. Instead, something that, as you know, exists to be ephemeral and material, mysterious and specific. An unraveling coalesced into a form, as opposed to a cohesive argument.

I suspect you don’t like being written about. After all, the rest of us must not do it too well. You’re surely endlessly questioned by journalists and art critics, about ridiculous details like what shoes you wear when you paint. If you like to take public transportation. If you like cinnamon more or nutmeg. If you buy paint in the afternoons. Whether you choose the subject of your paintings following long walks, or conversations over balconies, or a secret your sister Kate shares with you after she takes a long shower.  If, the night before you begin a painting, you go out with friends or cook a big meal or read a book from cover to cover. 

Some people say, ‘the devil’s in the details’ but angels can be hidden there too. Secrets that when unwrapped, reveal the code to a fresco. I wonder though, that however close I try to look at your work with a microscope, I still won’t know. How and what and when the need to share your perspective on the world supplanted your previous tendency to accommodate others and whether, once that happened, you’ve stayed unwavering in your commitment to it. Here I am despite myself, still wondering, grasping for a gesture, without you to confirm the answer. 

Gwen John, Self-Portrait
Gwen John, Self-Portrait with Letter, 1907.

I know this letter to you is an artifice. I know you are dead and that I’m alive and that no usual communication is possible between us but, as my mother used to say, ‘Time is a strange substance’; and who knows really, with our time-bound comprehension of the world, whether there might not be some channel by which we can speak to each other, if we only knew how: like tuning a radio so that the crackling sound of the airwaves is slipstreamed into words. Maybe the sound of surf, or rushing water, is actually the echo of voices that have been similarly distorted through time. I don’t suppose this is true, and you don’t, either. But I do feel mysteriously connected to you.

We are both painters. We can connect to each other through images, in our own unvoiced language. But words are a more direct form of communication. So I will try and reach you with words. Through talking to you I may come alive and begin to speak, like the statue in Pygmalion. I have painted myself in silent seated poses, still as a statue, and so have you. Perhaps, through you, I can begin to trace the reason for my transformation into painted stone.

–Celia Paul

You must have looked, for years. At John’s face and how she rendered it for herself. Then in marble, her hands through his. As if you were looking for evidence of yourself. In an elbow or a shade of gray, a twist of a back or an open hip. Something. In her I’ve seen what seems to me the running you never had to do, to search for what’s inside of you. Or was she the person who pulled you out of running?

You must have listened, for years. Wandered between hedges and corner stores and paintbrushes, all lined up in a row and looked with your head tilted down, at those who passed by you wished to memorize. How did you choose, do you feel like you had the choice? Her to look at but who looked at you? Was it something connected to that force, your ability to be confident in stillness? The taste of cinnamon could that have been the beginning? And the right face opens you back to it, its sharpness and addiction. Is that what you’re savoring, when you paint? 

When Lucian Freud rendered your person onto canvas, I wonder if from the moment he met you, he knew of it, that something. From years before it was there, whether from John or India or walking past rose bushes for hours. Or did his stare make you see? The anchor you needed, to locate a focal point within yourself. Something you then ingested, that belief, as if you licked a commandment until its ink stained your tongue. Though I suspect it was there all along, waiting to be tapped by you into electricity. This must have been what made him want you, that you already knew. From the beginning, however tentative you seemed. Knew there was a rhythm inside yourself worth chasing.

Auguste Rodin, The Cathedral
Auguste Rodin, The Cathedral, 1908. Photo courtesy of the author.

One has in one’s hands something which must be called beautiful on account of its perfection. But its beauty is not entirely due to its incomparable perfection. It comes from the feeling of equilibrium, of balance between all [these] living surfaces, from the feeling that all [these] factors of disturbance come to rest within the thing itself … It makes no appeal to the world; it seems to carry within itself its own justice, the reconciliation of all its contradictions and a patience great enough for all its burdens. 

–Rainer Maria Rilke

I’m looking at her hands again. They might not be hers but I’ve decided, since I can, before I investigate once I leave here if I’m right, that they are. Could mine fit inside of them? I don’t think I could get away with trying, without a docent ushering me out of this room. 

I stay standing, gazing, listening, to chatters around me and the clacking of heels on this wooden floor. The snap of a picture and the pause, between when it’s taken on a phone and the photographer looks at their record to confirm it’s good enough for memory. It’s as if I feel desire. Not for them or for her or you or the person they were attached to but information, for the moment before and after. This pose, whether the hands wanted to reach for the person looking at them. If they wanted stillness or if it was imposed on them for barely a moment and the rest of the time, they swiveled fast. Forcing myself to stand longer than a glance, what am I supposed to be looking at? The curve of the knuckles or the twist as they lean into each other or is it a listening I’m supposed to be doing, to how sound blurs once I stop moving? Hands, marble. Did they put lotion on, before every sitting? Curves and arrangements, did they swivel their hands into any as they stood in front of a mirror? Contort them into every direction possible following the lines on their palm with the opposing thumb, trying to reassure themselves as they traced them that whatever happened, their hands would still be theirs, after. 

I wonder what mine says about me. So little, until I stop. 

I trace my palm with the thumb from its opposite. The line that cuts between my index and middle finger. Where it points may be imparting a message about where I should go next, once I leave this room. Or maybe not. 

I look at her hands again. 

They’re not her hands, I realize. 

They can’t be. 

They’re two right hands entangled as if they could be, arranged impossibly.

This distinguishing characteristic of things, complete self-absorption, was what gave to plastic art its calm; it must have no desire nor expectation beyond itself, nor bear any reference to what lies beyond, nor be aware of anything outside itself. Its surroundings must be found within it. 

–Rainer Maria Rilke

John’s self-portraits are so contained. As if, having been made available in stone for us to look at as we wander through this gallery, she declares to us in the future, that despite what we may wish for, she’s unknowable. Within her own image, her gaze is all that matters. She refuses to grant us access to her.

She doesn’t let us know whether she likes nutmeg more.

Why is wondering about her still nagging at me when … wasn’t I thinking about you? Of someone specific and mysterious, material and ephemeral. A person coalesced beyond an unraveling you craft again and again, out of a stillness you found, into a form. Her eyes watch us through her paint, they don’t seem like a refutation. Nor are yours a declaration of attack or a surrender. In her gaze I see what seems to me the evidence you’ve been sharing all along, to look for the will to pull the running out of me. 

I decided to walk on the beach, crossing the track where an army of joggers was pounding along continually, to the water’s edge. The light, though over-clouded, possessed an opalescent intensity; it was like seeing a blazing fire through gauze. The air was milky and very still. I watched the funny little birds that bounced along the shoreline. I had seen hummingbirds in the bushes outside my hotel window—I had watched them from my bed as I drank my first cup of tea.

–Celia Paul

When I think about that book review I read of yours, in what was probably the Los Angeles Review of Books after all, I felt as if in you there was something I’d been missing in me. The piece included neither photographs of you nor any of your paintings and that omission, I liked it. They included only your words, about yourself and your work. I didn’t see what it might be but imagined how it could be, out of what you described. A person who’s focused, from one interest to a point of rage, then inspiration to a memory that haunts them only when they let it. Someone who concentrates on the space between thing to thing so that quickly, they lose track of themselves in order to stay constant, on the work they have ahead of them. 

I’m back to hands side by side in pairs. 

Depending on what I’m looking at, I hold mine differently. When I’m nervous, I shove them in my pockets. Barely paying attention to how they feel, so focused on other things. Or if I’m at ease, they stretch longer and flatter and as I gesticulate, reveal more about how I’m feeling than what I’m saying. Alternatively, I’m so absorbed in what I’m sharing they move jerkily into clusters so I press them against each other. They shape themselves differently, constantly and I … I’m standing in a gallery. 

I’m not sure how I begin, when I enter somewhere I don’t know. Without an expectation but a hope, for something inside of me to wake up. The opposite of a chase, a circling. I wander a space until I identify what I want to look at and then I go there. Somehow here you are. I’m standing in a museum, looking at inhuman hands trying to flee a block of marble. I don’t want to put mine inside of them, to see if they’d fit. I’m hearing the voice of you. I don’t need to melt into something that might distract me, from what you must have taught me already how to see.