In a fusion of the pictorial and the prosaic, Celia Paul’s memoir Self-Portrait is a potently honest and personal read.
Paul, a prolific artist, proclaims herself at the start as “not a portrait painter” but “an autobiographer and a chronicler of my life and family”. Readers are able to immerse themselves in her world, seeing it through the eyes of the humble, yet wonderfully talented artist.
In her youth, describes Paul, she was drawn to writing prose and poetry, however later abandoned these, devoting herself entirely to painting. She believes that whilst writing has a more decisive, less ambiguous force, “[t]he hermetic language of painting necessarily keeps its secret: its power remains mysterious.” This is the crux of what makes Paul’s paintings so engrossing – her paintings are webbed in an enigma which viewers have to unravel for themselves. In recovering her literary passion, the memoir becomes a testament to Paul’s internal strength.
Between the ages of 19 and 28, Paul was romantically involved with Lucian Freud. Originally meeting under his tutorship, the couple had a troubling dynamic, which affected how Paul viewed herself as an artist. She often sat for Freud, but describes that being both a model and an artist was internally conflicting. Freud’s last depiction of her was in his ‘Painter and Model’ (1986-7). Paul is shown hovering next to her close friend, Angus Cook, who she looks upon with downcast eyes. Cook’s nudity does not diminish his dominance in the portrait; instead it is Paul who seems timid and lacking control. Whilst he is the subject, she is treated as an object on the sideline of the composition. Despite being covered in paint and holding a paintbrush, Paul describes how she felt Freud had not depicted her as inhabiting the role of painter, and therefore she made her own version of ‘Painter and Model’ in 2012. This being a self-portrait is powerfully symbolic – she incarnates herself into both the role of painter and of model harmoniously. She is the central and sole feature of the painting and is no longer at the mercy of any man.
Paul describes how she felt constantly in the shadow of Freud, causing her to withdraw, and as a female artist, she has had to establish her worth. Her experiences of gender inequality are not unfamiliar to other female artists, and indeed, her memoir is empowering to those who similarly feel secondary to their male counterparts.
Gender inequality smothers the art field, affecting its history and the reception of contemporary female artists. This issue is tackled directly by Katy Hessel, author of The Story of Art Without Men (2022), an alternative to E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, which although consistently praised as the ‘art history Bible’ includes only one female artist. Of course, Paul has her rightful place in Hessel’s book, where she is described as “uphold[ing] the sacredness of the moment and the relationship she shares with her sitters”. This is typified in Paul’s ‘My Sisters in Mourning’ (2015-16), a painting she delineates in her memoir. It was made after her mother’s death and on the 32nd anniversary of her father’s death. Paul sensitively depicts her sisters sharing the grief, but also shows each woman in their own realm, disconnected and divided from one another’s experience. Here, women are the main subject, which is a powerful contrast to Freud’s neglecting depiction of Paul.
Paul’s wistful writing, embracing both vulnerability and power, makes Self-Portrait a must read. Not only for artists and art historians but for all those seeking to understand life’s complexities given its emphasis on gender inequality within the art field.
Image “Paint Brushes.” by ohdearbarb is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.“