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Against Any Intrusion: Writing to Gwen John


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Santa Monica, 2019, oil on canvas, 40 x 48″. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.

February 14, 2019
Santa Monica, California

Dearest Gwen,

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 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 of rushing water, is actually the echoes 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 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.

It has been a time of upheaval for me and I have been trying to gather my thoughts. So many things have ended, or are ending. New beginnings, too. I have been thinking a lot about the past, about our past, and it has never struck me so forcibly as now, when I am nearly sixty years old, just how much our lives have been stamped with a similar pattern.

We both came to study at the Slade School of Art from our homes in the West Country; we both had passionate relationships with much older and more famous male artists, who we also modeled for; we were driven to find our true creativity by leading interior, solitary lives; we both became interested in abstraction (and the idea of God) in later life. The sea has always been important to us: you died trying to reach the coast at Dieppe, “feeling the old compulsion” upon you to glimpse the sea.

We both work best from women. Your mother died when you were only eight whereas mine died when I was fifty-five, yet mothers are of central significance to both of us. We are both close to our sisters, one in particular: you to Winifred, whom you often painted, I to Kate, my younger sister, who is my most regular sitter. The two men I have been most intensely involved with, Lucian Freud and my husband, Steven Kupfer—in both cases their girlfriend before me had been called Kate; I had suffered terrible jealousy at Kate’s birth and felt supplanted by her in my mother’s affection, but then grew to love her particularly. Jealousy heightens love; the special intensity with which we observe the object of our mother’s (or lover’s) devotion narrows the beam of our focus. Who was it who said that love was the highest form of attention?

One of the main reasons I want to speak to you now is because I’ve become increasingly aware of how both of us are regarded in relation to men. You are always associated, in the public’s eyes, with your brother Augustus and with your lover, Auguste Rodin. I am always seen in light of my involvement with Lucian Freud. We are neither of us considered as artists standing alone. I hate the term in her own right—as in “artist in her own right”—because it suggests that we are still bound to our overshadowed lives, like freed slaves. I hate the word muse, too, for the same limiting reason. We are both referred to as muses, and you have repeatedly been described as “a painter in her own right,” as I have. Why are some women artists seen for what they are uniquely? What is it about us that keeps us tethered? Both of our talents are entirely separate from those of the men we have been attached to—we are neither of us derivative in any way. Do you think that, without fully understanding why, we are both of us culpable?

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Kate Pregnant, 1995, etching, 25 7/8 x 20 5/8″. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.

You never traveled to America, from where I am writing to you now. I’m in my hotel room, lying on my bed, from which I can just see a glimpse of the ocean. There is a notice on the door with instructions about what to do if there’s an earthquake.

I know how you and I both suffer terribly from homesickness, so this feeling may have been what prompted me to communicate with you. You always said that one doesn’t get to heaven in twos and threes, one can only get to heaven alone. But doesn’t being away from home intensify this loneliness so that it’s almost unbearable? Not that either of us has ever properly had a “home” in any consoling sense: the homes we lived in as children never felt like home. When did you become aware of this feeling of rootlessness? For me, this sensation seems to be bound up with my identity. And stillness, of course. I have never been able to understand why people are so restless.

It isn’t restlessness that brings me here, or even curiosity. I am impelled to come for the sake of my paintings. I am having an exhibition here, in California, organized by a man who has helped me with my career. Here is one of the differences between us—you would never have used the word career. Painting, for you, was always a vocation. It is for me as well, but I am more ambitious than you, more organized and driven. These aspects of my nature may have surprised this American man who has helped me so much. He used to refer to me as “a very patient woman,” but I am sure he was thinking of you, really. This is the third exhibition in America that he has dreamed up for me. The first was just over three years ago, in New York.

New York frightened me. Before I went, people assured me that it would seem very familiar because I would have seen it in so many films. But actually it had seemed the most alien place I had ever encountered. I was only there for four days. I arrived in a heat wave; the weather broke on my last day: in a torrential downpour accompanied by apocalyptic thunder and lightning. New York seemed primeval and everything uncertain, as if the skyscrapers and towering buildings were built on sand, not rock, and the whole fabrication could collapse and there would be left just the howling emptiness of a barren, uncultivated land. I hardly dared go out of my hotel room and I lived only on room service. I ventured out to the Frick Collection and found consolation in Rembrandt’s great masterpiece: his Self-Portrait dressed in gold, a postcard of which I keep on the shelf in my studio in London. I looked into his shrewd, kind, knowing eyes and felt more grounded suddenly. It made me aware of the urgent importance of the language of painting—this subterranean language that speaks most powerfully to lost souls.

The second time I went to America was to Yale. It had been snowing when I arrived. My experience of being abroad was partly soothed by the subduing presence of snow. But it was really the fact that the gallery, the Yale Center for British Art, owns such a great body of work by you. Your paintings appeared to me like essential fragments of a life blown over the ocean like rose petals in a storm: delicate, broken, unfinished, yet intact and suggestive of a secret, perfumed world, a guarded, haloed world, a sheltered rose garden. You weren’t interested in the efforts of John Quinn, the enlightened and influential American patron of artists and writers, to make presentations of your work in America. You guarded yourself against any intrusion. And, for this reason, you were able to make these silent evocations of your spirit, of your soul. It had seemed a miracle to me to see them here because they looked so fragile. But they have the tenacity of seeds that flourish wherever the wind blows them.

I have been invited to talk here in Los Angeles about the group of seven paintings of mine on show in the Huntington Museum, which, among many treasures, also houses several paintings by John Constable. The director asked me to speak about how I feel that my paintings of water and sea connect to Constable’s work. I said that although Constable and I often rely on nature as our subject, my paintings from water differ to some extent from his because I only started to paint water as my mother was dying, and have continued to do so after her death. My water paintings are about grief. I said that I hope one day to stop painting water.

Let me tell you what it is like here. The hotel I’m staying in is very beautiful. It is big and square and made out of solid stone that, though gray, has a sort of blush as if it is constantly reflecting a sunset over the ocean onto which it is facing.

On the first morning 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 overclouded, 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. I noted that not one single bird or tree or flower was the same as in England.

I stood at the ocean’s edge and watched the lapping waves. Then, as the waves continued to gently break onto the shore at my feet, I thought about Charlotte Brontë’s book Villette. I know you must have read it, too. There is an undertow of sadness throughout, like a low murmur that gradually gets louder and more intense until it threatens to drown out the narrative and break up the rhythm of the plot. On the last page, Lucy Snowe is waiting in her bedroom above a classroom in Brussels for her beloved, Monsieur Paul Emanuel (her “Maître,” as you always called Rodin), who is traveling home to her from America. A storm is raging outside her window. She is restless and paces up and down; she is waiting, perhaps forever waiting, since the ocean across which he is traveling toward her must be impossibly treacherous. The lightning strikes and the storm rages on and Lucy is still waiting. There’s a foreshadowing of Lucy’s fate near the beginning of the book, in the story that the old lady (for whom Lucy is a paid companion) tells her: how she had lost her beloved fiancé, Frank, in a riding accident the day before they were due to be married.

I returned to my room. My window has only an oblique view onto the ocean beyond the hotel car park but I am aware of it as a constant presence. It has a mirage-like quality, quivering, an intimation of light across the expanse of sand. It suggests to me the vastness of nature, of the universe. On this first afternoon, I watched, from my bed, the tiny figures on the beach, black shapes like cloves with vestigial arms and legs, silhouetted against the shining strip of water.

As the evening light intensified into a final flaring, I decided to venture out again. I hadn’t been able to sleep. Outside, there was a clarity to the light that was quite different to anything I had experienced in England, where there is always a blurred halo around every form. Here, it was as if some lens had been wiped clean and every outline was distinct. I felt closer to the outer air and the stars. Sounds traveled more keenly too. Three boys were calling to each other and their voices were without echo. I walked along the water’s edge. The waves on this ocean followed each other in straight, uninterrupted lines, no unruly overspilling before the whole straight unbroken wave came cleanly down onto the shore, which stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. The foam trimmed the water’s edge and clung neatly to it, never flooding too far into the sand. There was a clear demarcation between land and water.

Now, when I look out the window, I see that the weather has changed. A thin rain is falling steadily. I have arranged for a car to collect me from my hotel and drive me to the Getty Villa, which is situated further along the coastline. The driver is an elderly man who alarms me by fiddling constantly with switches and knobs on the dashboard. I realize, with dismay, that he is trying to locate the windshield wipers. The glass is becoming opaque with rain. Eventually he manages to turn the correct switch and the view opens up to reveal a heaving ocean to the left of the highway, lit by a brooding sky. The museum stands on a hill surrounded by towering pine trees. I get out of the car. I arranged for the driver to wait for me. I breathe in the air, which is saturated with pine and herbs from the immaculate herb gardens. The fragrant rows of thyme and sage and marjoram are punctuated with pools filled with ornamental fish.

Inside the Getty Villa are ancient statues and paintings from Greece and Rome. They seem like captive spirits waiting to be freed from their cages of stone and paint. I cry in front of a battered stone carving, titled Elderly Woman, of the face of a woman still beautiful in her endurance: she has a peaceful air as though she is saying that all will be well despite the ravages of time. She is probably only in her mid-fifties, younger than me.

You lived to be only sixty-three. I dread real old age. I am fifty-nine. I think of my mother and all the pain she suffered towards the end, and then the dementia that gradually carried her off into an unreachable place until her death, age eighty-seven.

I think of the unfinished sculpture Rodin did of you. You were in your late twenties then. It must have been a very difficult pose to keep, with one leg raised onto a plinth, your neck stretched out and your lowered head tilted at an angle. You look as if you are consciously being patient, like an animal lowering its humble head so that its master can put the harness over it.

I return to the car and the driver takes me down the hill, along a winding road bordered by immense trees, to a café built on a pier that stretches out into the ocean. I stand by the railings; the waves are crashing against the stilts of the terrace. I could reach down and touch the water with my hand. I need to stand here and look at the steady breathing of the waves, without even thinking, so that the disturbance in my heart can subside.

***

I am back in my hotel room now. I have just had my first cup of tea. Again I didn’t sleep. It is my last day in America, and my flight to London leaves this afternoon. I need to pack and prepare so I will have to finish this letter now, dearest. I will write to you again when I’m home.

With a handshake (as Vincent van Gogh used to say, on signing off a letter to his beloved brother, Theo),

Celia

 

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Breaking, Santa Monica, 2019, oil on canvas, 42 x 40″. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.

February 22, 2019
Great Russell Street, London

Dear Gwen,

I was looking at a book of paintings by you just now. I turned to the catalog at the back. The first reference is to an oil painting of your sister Winifred, “probably painted in 1895.” The text goes on to say that Winifred became a violin teacher in California, where she married a pupil of hers. I think about how much you must have yearned for her. I don’t know how I could live if my sister Kate emigrated so far away from me.

Soon after my return from Los Angeles, I prepared my canvases for two new seascapes. I hadn’t made studies of the sea while I was there but the light—the particular visionary light—haunted my imagination.

I made a ground of Payne’s gray, Vandyke brown, and Naples yellow by squeezing these colors onto my canvases. I then tipped on Sansodor, an odorless paint thinner that I’d begun to use as a replacement for turps. Until a few years ago, when I opened the door to my flat the smell of turps was overpowering. Everyone commented on it. I loved the smell. All my clothes and my hair were saturated with its pungency. I wore the scent with pride, like a saint reveling in her hair shirt. If I lit candles in my front room in the evening, their flames would shoot up toward the ceiling, fueled by the gaseous fumes. But gradually, I found it harder to tolerate and it became difficult to breathe. I had constant sinus pain and headaches. I had to give it up.

I think I used more turps than you did. I poured quantities of it over my paintings if I felt they were becoming too tight or illustrative. Often a new image would rise up miraculously from the resultant drips and disordered paint marks. Something that I could never have foreseen, if I had been controlling the depiction of an image.

But you always had your own delicate disorder: a dress thrown over the arm of a chair, a brown shawl slipping from your shoulders. You had an instinct for ordered haphazardness. In your garden you would have let the weeds grow naturally among the flowers, though you would have made sure the weeds didn’t choke the other plants. You would have grown lavender and alyssum in the borders. And violets, your favorite flowers.

In preparing my canvases, I shift the paint, drenched in Sansodor, around them, using whatever ragged scraps of material come first to hand, so that the whole surface is equally covered in luminous gray brown. Every item that strays into my studio, every bath towel, eventually becomes a paint rag.

I need to leave the canvases to dry now.

The first marks I make on the canvas suggest movement: the horizontal lines of the waves, the upward lift of the sky, the red-and-gold clouds breezing toward the top right-hand corner and beyond. The sunset of the evening of my arrival in Los Angeles is in my mind, but I am not working from memory. I am a slave to the demands the painting is already making on me. The sound of the waves is in my mind, too. My paint marks weave in this movement so that, when I step back from the canvas, I can see that the water is beginning to have a life of its own, quivering and shifting the longer I look at it.

The painting comes about very easily and freely. I am still energized by the newness of my recent experience in America and some of this wonder makes its way into the painting, which I title simply Santa Monica.

As soon as I have finished it, I start on the second canvas. The overclouded, gauzy light of my third day in California is what I want to convey now. The sky broods, hiding a blazing sun that remains concealed. The painting builds up like a covered pot of milk on a stove, boiling over when the waves break onto the shore in a luminous, frothing band of bright white light. I title this one Breaking, Santa Monica.

Pembrokeshire and Brittany were the coasts that you spent most time in. Your memories of the sea were filled with a bracing wind, the horizon meandering as if warped by the waves and the wind. There were no straight lines, as there are between the sea and the shore in California. You would have to understand that, when you looked at my paintings.

I am suddenly tired, dearest. I will write again soon.

With a handshake,

Celia

 

Celia Paul’s work is in the collections of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery (London), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her major solo exhibitions include Celia Paul, curated by Hilton Als, at the Yale Center for British Art (2018) and the Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California (2019); and Desdemona for Celia by Hilton at Gallery Met, New York (2015–16). She is the author of the memoir Self-Portrait (2020).

This is adapted from Celia Paul’s forthcoming book, Letters to Gwen John, which will be published by New York Review Books on April 26, 2022.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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