Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul
Continuing on the recent spate of artist books, I just started-in on Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul. In fact, I’m reading it out of order, since my intention was to first read her previous book, Self-Portrait.
Celia Paul is an English painter. To her understandable chagrin, she is frequently viewed through the lens of a romantic relationship she had many years ago with a much older man – the great painter Lucian Freud. She tackles this difficulty, apparently, in Self-Portrait.
These two books developed in reaction to several key events. In the instance of the first book, it was the death of Lucian Freud (2010). The current book was brought about by the recent death of her mother, and by the diagnosis of terminal illness in her husband. At fifty-nine, she is very much reflecting on her life. My own dad died in November of last year. My mum, eighty-six, has spent much of the last three weeks in serious condition in hospital. I get the desire, the need, to reflect.
‘As a painter, words don’t come easily to me,’ she writes. Perhaps... but they come beautifully. I’m struck by the pristine economy of her language. Her words make me lament a time I was more careful with language, when I believed in my potential as a writer. How much was I prepared to sacrifice? How much more, if any, could I have given in pursuit of creative ambition?
I’m looking forward to the rest of the book, and even more so now, to Self-Portrait. She’s writing about what it means to be an artist, or about what it has meant to her – first as an artist forced to inhabit the shade of a more famous man, and second, as a mother, forced to make choices between art and parenthood that were often either/or, rather than choices of order.