I can most simply describe my book Letters to Gwen John by stating what it’s not. It is neither a biography of the painter Gwen John nor is it about being a muse; I have compared and contrasted Gwen John’s experiences with my own. I have explored the question of whether she and I are culpable, in ways we don’t quite understand, of our overshadowing by more famous male artists and whether it is necessary to us to paint, silently and secretly, under cover of these shadows. Whether it is exposure that we fear, above all.
I think of myself as a painter, not a writer. I am compelled to paint every day; I am only driven to write if I have to say something explicitly. I wrote my first book Self-Portrait when I was in my late fifties. I needed to make sense of my life as a whole: I wanted to connect to the young woman who wrote occasional notes in her diary when the turbulent feelings of being involved with a much older man overspilled. I needed to accept this young woman as my own self, even from the distance of many years. I didn’t expect to write another book. The response to Self-Portrait made me realise that I had to. The nature of self-denial is too easily defined as victimhood.
A painting is like a letter: they both live in the constant present. A work of fiction, say, requires the reader to follow the journey of the narrative, through all the paths and diversions that the author has laid out. The journey is grounded in the terrain of the narrative. With painting, the sudden impact of the present is conveyed as a whole, like a landscape viewed from the air. I can compare painting to a handwritten letter in the urgency to record manually what one sees and feels, but in both cases, the signing off and letting go demand fatalistic detachment. To look at a painting is to witness a first-person account of something happening now. The same can be said of reading a letter.
It feels natural to me to use the epistolary form. I am not a narrative painter or writer. A story often baffles me. Gwen John wrote a lot of letters. In one she states: ‘To me the writing of a letter is a very important event! I try to say what I mean exactly’. The letter form requires precision. I realised that I needed to say more about the kind of painter I am, and that Gwen John is. For me, as for her, (and for many other artists) the spiritual quality of paintings is what means most. By ‘spiritual’, I don’t mean ‘religious’ necessarily, more that a painting must be mysterious, must be still. There are no short-cuts to achieving this stillness. You can’t lead a busy life and paint intensely focused, quiet paintings. Gwen John became a recluse by her own choosing. I hoped, through writing letters to her, I might discover whether this should also be my choice.
Image © Celia Paul, My Chair (3), 2020, oil on canvas, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul is published this month by Jonathan Cape in the UK and New York Review Books in the US. The publication coincides with a major new exhibition, Celia Paul: Memory and Desire, at Victoria Miro, London, from 6 April–7 May 2022.