Letters to Gwen John
(New York Review Books, 2022)
“With a handshake” is how Celia Paul, the painter and writer, often signs off in Letters to Gwen John, her second book. This “encounter,” as Paul terms it, with the painter Gwen John takes the unusual form of a one-sided correspondence. When she began these letters in 2019, Celia Paul was rounding sixty; John had died of self-neglect at sixty-three in 1939. But as Paul has written elsewhere, “A painting is like a letter: they both live in a constant present.” That constant present is this book’s tense. John herself was a passionate letter writer, often to lovers. Another obsessive, Vincent van Gogh, hovers near, for as Paul reminds us, he also sometimes signed off his lengthy letters to his brother Theo “with a handshake.” Delineating a path, tracing a chain of influence, Celia Paul establishes a pantheon of painter/writers. That “constant present” perhaps also explains a formality of diction in these letters, as well as a tremulous intimacy, influenced by van Gogh’s dissection of his despair as well as John’s precision about her desires and aims.
Whether in Los Angeles for the first time at an exhibit of her work, or in coastal Wales—near where John herself grew up—or in her Bloomsbury studio, Paul describes herself as consumed by work or the anticipated loss of her husband, who died of cancer in 2021, several months after the letters conclude. Heartbroken, ill at ease, restless even with intimates, she writes, “I wish I weren’t always so lonely, yet unable to be in company for long, even the company of my most beloved husband, who I know I will miss unbearably when he is gone … It’s how I’ve always been, and so have you.” Explaining it another way, Paul quotes Gwen John, “I am ridiculous … I can’t refuse anything that is asked of me.” To avoid being asked, Paul keeps her living space unfurnished, her door locked, her company limited, and pays for her liberty with the anguish of solitude.
The Gwen John whom Celia Paul reaches out to with such poignant sincerity was a solitaire, a romantic, a depressive who can’t make her differences known. Mostly, John is glimpsed here through her paintings, modestly reproduced together with Paul’s in this inexpensive volume. Despite the economies of scale and material, John’s paintings, especially the self-portraits, assert themselves with a certitude of vision, at once cerebral and concrete. In contrast, Paul’s work is distinguished by its dreamy colors, the sense of motion in each ocean wave and tree, the goodness of the human faces illuminating the most somber of surroundings. These paintings interspersed through the text, often in simple pairs, for example a self-portrait of each artist, suggest a living dialogue beyond the occasional contrivance of the letters. They make us believe in this unlikely friendship, this séance, where the men have been vanquished and the spiritual can be taken for granted.
Less differentiated are the life stories of these two artists, as described by Celia Paul. Both studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, where each was distinguished early on by her talent; both, when young, were sensitive, provincial, proud, vulnerable. In each case, too, a relationship with an older, flagrantly promiscuous, and better-known artist caused much damage. Augustus John, Gwen’s younger brother—also educated at the Slade—cast a shadow, too, as he played the role of painter of his day. Having fled to Paris in part to escape her brother’s influence, Gwen John became involved at twenty-seven with Rodin, then more than twice her age, throwing down her brush temporarily the better to serve her “Maître.” When the relationship waned, she wrote him hundreds of letters, maintaining a tenuous and difficult tie.
Lucian Freud cited approvingly this act of romantic immolation when he was the young Celia Paul’s lover. (He had heard of it firsthand while painting one of Augustus John’s illegitimate daughters.) Freud kept Rodin nearby, too, several of his casts on display at his studio and home. Whatever else can be deduced, the message of male primacy seems undisputed. Paul is discreet about the self-subjugation she practiced as she later tried to maintain a relationship with Freud for the sake of their son, born when Paul was just twenty-four. “There’s just blankness,” she writes to John of that period. “Language dried up in me. I struggled to finish a painting.”
As Gwen John’s modest output now seems to overshadow her prolific brother’s, it seems possible that Celia Paul’s work now can be celebrated without mention of Freud. And yet, even as her art succeeds, Paul is often beating down despair as she reaches out to John for solace. “Think of me,” she writes, as if in prayer, “and help me by your quiet presence to be peaceful at the last.” Leaving much unsaid about what at times seems something close to a breakdown, Paul describes over the twenty months of these letters several attempted rest cures, one to the religious community where long ago she lived with her family, another to the Welsh coast. Perhaps the most unexpected moment in the book is when leaving her childhood holiday cottage, Paul decides, suddenly, she will not return. “The drystone fences look like cages, today,” she writes to Gwen John, for whom this landscape was the magnificent setting of a bereft and motherless childhood. “I understood how you needed to escape.” Paul’s own need to escape, perhaps from an uncommunicative elder sister and a not-very-comfortable cottage, emerges as if from a shared consciousness. John left, under difficult circumstances; so can she.
Praising Gwen John’s compact self-portraits, Paul notes that because “women painters hardly even have a foothold in the history of art … they need to find oblique ways of self-representation.” Here, Celia Paul has done that, inventing at least a toehold for these two most solitary of artists, imagining them as companions able to scale the heights they deserve.