‘The title is Self-Portrait, May (2010). It is the first of three, the other two being June and July 2010. I extended the theme in 2013 when I painted five self portraits: the first is June and the last is October. To exhibit them in a row creates an unsettling effect: a conceptual work in which individuality is questioned. Are they all the same people or are they sisters or friends? The idea has a personal significance for me because I am one of five sisters: my identity has always been defined by my resemblance to one or other of my sisters. In a wider context, women are so often defined by labels: wife, daughter, sister, mistress, Muse. When looking in a mirror women are questioning who they are and what place they have in the world.’
Celia Paul, writing in June 2015 about her self-portrait which won the Ruth Borchard Prize in 2013, and was acquired by the RB Collection.
A simultaneous sense of still detachment and intimate absorption characterises Celia Paul’s May 2010 self-portrait – reminiscent of Gwen John’s self-portraiture as a self-contained young woman (as seen in the latter’s great self-portraits dating from 1899-1902). Paul’s own portraits (never commissioned and principally of women close to her, like her mother Pamela – her main subject for years – and her sisters – though she has painted her partner Stephen Kupfer as well as her son Frank Paul) and self-portraits have an affinity too with John’s in their exacting tonalities and rigorously pared-down approach.
In Paul’s May 2010 self-portrait, the focus is entirely on the face, neck, and hair (with a dark top she wears just visible). The asymmetrically-shaped eyes transfix the viewer with a look at once plain and unembroidered yet haunting too. The taut, gaunt terrain of the face here is much-shadowed; the greenish-golden-pale-purplish palette evokes both feelings of subtle anguish and the artist’s own evident, perhaps hard-won tenderness towards herself. The restrained, simplified palette and note of hieratic simplicity have echoes of Fra Angelico and artists of the Italian Quattrocento. The picture’s tensely wrought structure may bring to mind Giacometti’s harsh portraits of deep existential isolation.
In the self-portrait series Paul went on to make in 2013, the upper torso (in its dark sweater or top) is included, the fluctuating tonal backgrounds enlarged. Light falling on the face shifts dramatically from picture to picture – in Self-Portrait, June (2013) the features are both gently and wistfully illumined and shadowed. In Self-Portrait, July (2013), sharply delineated features appear rawly etched with an ineffable angst. In perhaps the most disquieting of these works, Self-Portrait, August (2103), a dark oval-shaped shadow extends over the mass of the face like a spreading bruise whilst the surrounding features are transfigured with a yellow-golden light.
Celia Paul was born in 1959, the fourth of five daughters, in what was then called the city of Trivandrum in southern India, where her father was a missionary. The family moved back to England when she was four. From 1976-81 she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she met Lucian Freud who was a visiting tutor. She had a relationship with Freud lasting ten years, and is the subject of several paintings by Freud, including Girl in a Striped Nightshirt (Tate Collection).
Joanna Moorhead has written that ‘Paul has long felt herself to be bookended, as she puts it, between men: specifically, her one-time lover Lucian Freud, who died in 2011, by whom she has a son, Frank [Paul], now 29 [and also now an artist]; and her brother-in-law Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Whenever her art is written about, these names are always dropped prominently into the articles. Now, Paul wants to break free from these noisy, visible, powerful males, and to show the world her own quiet, female power instead.’ [i]
Since 1982 Paul has lived and worked in a studio across the road from the British Museum. Moorhead has written that in both Gwen John’s and Paul’s ‘work there is a sense of containment, of explosive expressiveness boxed into spare, domestic portraits and still lives. When I visited Paul… her sparse flat, with bare paint-splattered floorboards and a few sticks of furniture, reminded me forcibly of John’s A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (1907).’
‘Being one of five sisters is another defining aspect of Paul’s work. “My mother has always spoken about ‘all of you’, and I think I’ve always been searching for a sense of identity, a sense of who I was amongst all these daughters,” she says.’ [ii]
Her tremulously (sometimes even turbulently) tranquil portraits of her sisters – singly, in pairs or, as in one picture, in a row of four (wearing austere, enveloping white gowns) with herself diminutively visible in a mirror in the act of painting – challenge the viewer’s notions of personal uniqueness: ‘Your identity is important when you have four sisters. The similarities between us made me think of the fragility of identity, not just my family’s but in portraiture as a whole. It is really something so subtle to conjure up the presence of the sitter. So, to bring out in a row of women the minute, very telling differences – the way they position their feet and hands, the tilt of their head, everything – becomes much more specific.’ [iii]
Between 1991 and 2013 Paul had regular solo exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art, London. Gwen John and Celia Paul: Painters in Parallel was at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester in 2012-13. She had a solo exhibition at Victoria Miro, London in 2014.
[i] Joanna Moorhead, writing in the Independent (15.6.14.)
[ii] Joanna Moorhead, writing in the Guardian (13.10.12.)
[iii] Celia Paul talking to Matilda Battersby in the Independent (25.1.11.)
Purchased from the 2011 Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait competition.