Letters to Gwen John – Celia Paul

I love books on art and creativity as well as hybrid narratives where the boundaries between genres are blurred – recent case in point being Nathalie Leger’s superb Suite for Barbara Loden. Celia Paul’s gorgeous work Letters to Gwen John, therefore, ticked all the right boxes for me.

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, aging and loneliness.

It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

THE SIMILARITIES – A SMORGASBORD OF ASSOCIATIONS

Celia begins her narrative by highlighting the four postcards of paintings that are her personal favourites; one of them being the work titled The Convalescent by Gwen John (“Just one look at this reproduction of Gwen John’s painting and my breathing becomes easier”), and which also caught my attention because it graces the cover of my Virago edition of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  

We learn that both Gwen and Celia were students at the prestigious Slade School of Art. Gwen, particularly, came from an artistically inclined family. Her mother Augusta, an artist, named her younger brother who she loved dearly Augustus, and later there would be Auguste Rodin in Gwen’s life. Augustus was the first to gain entry into this prestigious art school, and Gwen subsequently followed.

The two men in Celia Paul’s life (first Lucian Freud and then her husband Steven Kupfer) had girlfriends called Kate before they met Celia, and Celia has a younger sister Kate who she is closest to, while Steven’s mother was called Kathe. And then Lucian was named after his mother Lucie because “she sensed a special bond with him at first sight.”

LOVE, BURNING PASSION AND YEARNING

Celia Paul then goes on to elaborate how both women fell deeply in love with and were profoundly influenced by men – the sculptor Auguste Rodin for Gwen and the artist Lucian Freud for Celia.

Gwen’s passion for Rodin is all consuming and claustrophobic. Initially posing as a model for him, that professional relationship quickly transforms into an affair. The passion that Gwen feels for Rodin is so intense, that when he is not around, the pining and yearning for him destabilizes her to the detriment of her art.

Celia experiences something similar. She meets Lucian while still studying at the Slade and a passionate affair soon develops. His absences keep her on tenterhooks; the debilitating longing for him affects her art. Disillusioned by the painting techniques taught at the Slade, Celia draws inspiration from Lucian in many aspects while attempting her paintings. And yet it’s a relationship fraught with awkwardness. Celia outlines the contrasting attitudes of the two women while posing as models for their paramours; Gwen is uninhibited while sitting for Rodin and posing comes naturally to her. But for Celia it is sometimes a momentous effort, partly because she is disconcerted by Lucian’s objective, piercing gaze.

There are differences also in how these relationships play out. Gwen’s intense feelings for Rodin finds an outlet in a frenzy of letters she sends to him where she unabashedly writes about how his lengthening spells of absences torment her. The single-minded nature of her emotions alarm Rodin to the point that he is concerned for her, but is also gradually driven away. Celia’s relationship with Lucian goes one step further; she has a son with him named Frank. But this is a romance that also peters out, a development that Celia gratefully welcomes with a sense of relief as time rolls on.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

Letters to Gwen John is a book about women artists establishing their own identity in a field often dominated by men. Although encouraged in her art by her brother Augustus, Gwen often feels smothered by his proximity and influence and longs to get away so that she can blossom on her own and evolve independently as the artist she wants to be.

Both women strive for personal space, a physical domain they can truly call their own, a stamp of their monk-like personality. More importantly, it is free from the influence of their lovers, Auguste and Lucian, who can enter this private world as mere visitors and nothing more, the sharing of space strictly forbidden.

This desire is born out of the need for freedom to pursue their art (“We can be free if we are unseen. We are like nocturnal animals”), as well as a way to connect with their inner world (“Your aim has, always, was to lead a more and more interior life. We remain remote”).

SOLITIDE OR COMPANY?

Celia Paul has very eloquently painted a picture of the conflict that rages inside her – the aching need for solitude to practice her craft…

The peace is profound and it enters your soul to the extent that, even when you step outside, all sounds seem to be at a remove. The silence of the great ancient yew trees surrounding the tower seems to be at one with your own inner silence.

…which battles with the craving for company to ward off loneliness and old age.

I often think of those old women whom I have painted, my mother included, and I wonder at their quiet patience, and what inner reserves of strength they must draw on to keep up their courage and power to endue, riven as they all must be by memories and fear of the approaching dark.

ART & MOTHERHOOD – A DELICATE BALANCING ACT

One of my favourite books some years ago was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a fragmentary novella that dwells on the loss of identity and the mundaneness of new motherhood, where the protagonist laments that “she wanted to be an art monster.” Celia Paul experiences something of that as well. She wants to be a mother, Lucian encouraged it as well (although his relationship with their son Frank remained awkward and distant), and when the baby is born, Celia realizes that the demands of motherhood often clash with the discipline and quiet required for her art. And she struggles with this knowledge.

As a single parent of an angry adolescent son, I was in the spotlight, out of the shadows. Everything about me was exposed and judged. This exposure, and the world’s judgement that came with the exposure, is what prevented me from working truthfully. I was judged by Lucian, by my son, by my mother, by Bella. I lost confidence. There was no way, in the world’s eyes, that I could be a good mother – and I wanted to be a good mother now – while at the same time being a painter wholly committed to her art.

AN ODE TO THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I also loved the sections of the book that emphasized on the intricacies of the art-making process – the mixing of exotically named paints (Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Blue and so on), the challenges of the finished painting aligning with the artist’s vision, that ‘a-ha’ moment when you know that it has shaped up the way you had visualized it.

Painting is different from writing. A notebook or a laptop is a compact space for creativity. In order to paint you need paraphernalia: a palette, brushes, canvases, easel, and a room to yourself where it’s possible to be uninhibited – you need to be unconcerned about drips of paint landing on the carpet or staining the walls. We use words all the time. But painting is an acquired language that you need to practice every day, like playing an instrument: if you don’t, you lose your gift.

Akin to an image that quickly emerges from the deft strokes of a brush, these nuances of the artistic process are revealed to us in the later letters which focus on two of her paintings – “Copper Beech, Hampstead Heath” and “Weeping Willow”. Celia expertly illustrates the trials of completing these paintings, sometimes working on one painting only to move on to the other one and the unwavering focus required bringing it to fruition. And how the nature of the painting itself changes along the way.

BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WONDERFUL WRITING

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. Through her frank, unadorned, graceful narrative style, Celia Paul draws us into her solitary world where the sea that “gently washes and laps like milk tilted from side to side in a bowl”, and the incoming waves that “obediently follow each other, like sheep brought home to the fold”, has as much of a calming effect on the reader as it does on Paul. A fabulous fusion of biography and memoir, the book is an illuminating depiction of two female artists, their ascetic personalities, the desire to assert their independence while making art, and how their art becomes a steadying force and pillar of strength while navigating personal difficulties and turbulence in their lives. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

In a nutshell, the rich palette of themes, the quiet confessional tone of Celia Paul’s letters and the melancholic beauty of the artworks meld into a unique form that is a work of art by itself; the stillness and peace captured becomes a joy to truly savour.

Art in Nature – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

I love Tove Jansson’s books. Many years ago, I was very impressed with The True Deceiver published by NYRB Classics, while The Summer Book by the same publisher found a place on my Best of 2021 list. And now, Art in Nature, published by Sort Of Books, is another work of hers I would highly recommend.

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.

How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection. The scene of action is a summer art exhibition, outdoors in a park, and our protagonist is the caretaker, the only member of staff to stay overnight at the exhibition premises. He is proud of this art show where the mediums of expression on display are so varied – painting, graphic arts and the like…but what the caretaker loves best are the sculptures.

They grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing. They stood everywhere among the birches as if they’d sprung up from the soil, and when the summer night arrived and the mist drifted in from the lake they were as beautiful as granite crags or withered trees.

One night past the closing hours, he comes across a bonfire, cans of beer and a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they have recently purchased. They are quarrelling because they can’t see eye-to-eye on what this contemporary work essentially conveys. Until the caretaker surprises them with a whole new perspective on how they can view it.

One of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art. A young cartoonist, Sam Stein, is employed by a leading newspaper to step into the shoes of his predecessor – the popular and famous Allington who one fine day suddenly decides to step down. Allington is the creator of Blubby, a comic strip that has run for 20 fruitful years, guaranteeing his success.

Not ready to tamper with something that has worked so well, the newspaper decides to keep the comic strip running without Allington’s absence being noticed by his loyal readers, but this would involve hiring another artist to continue the strip in Allington’s name. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of rising cartoonist Sam Stein, and while the job is by no means a piece of cake, Stein rises up to the challenge. Working in Allington’s room and surrounded by his paraphernalia, Stein remains tormented by the suspense surrounding Allington’s disappearance and he wishes to dig deeper into the incident.

All he wanted was to try and find Allington. He needed to understand. He had a seven-year contract and he needed to be calmed or alarmed, one or the other, but he had to know.

What he subsequently discovers depresses him even further and he begins to question his sanity and the merits of his profession.

Jealousy and rivalry take centrestage in “The Doll’s House”, which begins on an innocuous note but steadily descends into violence. The artist in this tale is Alexander, an upholsterer of the old school, exceptionally skilled with a “craftsman’s natural pride in his work.” Alexander has lived in an apartment for 20 years with Erik, a banker by profession. Despite their vocations being as different as chalk and cheese, both men “have the same respect for lovely objects.” A day dawns when Alexander finally hangs up his boots and sells his upholstery workshop, while Erik retires from the bank.

They put Alexander’s samples in a cupboard and drank champagne to celebrate their new freedom.

Adapting to their new circumstances is difficult at first…

In fact, he (Alexander) didn’t care about reading as much as he once had. Perhaps books had tantalized him only as a stolen luxury in the middle of a working day.

But then Alexander is struck by the idea of building a doll’s house; a hobby that completely engrosses him to the point of obsession. Cracks begin to appear in his relationship with Erik who is relegated to the role of cooking and cleaning, while Alexander continues to be absorbed in his newfound passion. And when Alexander strikes up a friendship with a man who shares his zeal for the doll house, Erik’s role in the household further diminishes, a development that has repercussions.

Accurate portrayal of a part in a play or film requires study and research and this path takes an unexpected and novel turn in “A Leading Role”.

It was the biggest part she’d ever been given, but it didn’t suit her, it didn’t speak to her.

In this tale, our protagonist, Maria Mickelson, is a theatre actress who is expected to portray a timid woman called Ellen, a proposition she considers challenging and difficult (“An insignificant, anxious, middle-aged woman, an obliterated creature without any personality whatsoever!”). But then she realizes that the role entrusted upon her bears an uncanny resemblance to the personality of her distant cousin, Frida. Taking advantage of the fact that Frida is enamoured by the glamour of the theatre milieu, Maria invites cousin Frida to spend a few days with her at their desolate house in the country.

It was early summer, and she had driven out to their country house to open it for the season. The weather was dreadful, an ice-cold fog as grey and impenetrable as the role of Ellen. Down by the dock, the reeds vanished out into the empty nothingness of the lake, and the spruce trees were black with moisture. The fog forced its way into the house and the fire wouldn’t burn.

The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation (“And Flora fell asleep on her fur coat and the day passed into evening and she awoke and drank a little champagne, just one glass so she could experience everything with that much greater clarity”), while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.

Given that Tove Jansson was an artist herself – writer and creator of the Moomin strips – it’s perhaps no surprise that art and artists dominate much of these stories. The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process – the joys of being good at what you do, and the perils of being devoted to it to the exclusion of everything else.

The characters in these tales are often isolated individuals treading an unfamiliar terrain and often at odds with the demands of the outer world. In a nutshell, Art in Nature is a lovely book, another gem from Jansson’s oeuvre.

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency – Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather is a wonderful book with a range of compositions on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.

In the ‘Artists’ Lives’ section (easily my favourite), Laing covers a broad and varied spectrum of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Sargy Mann, David Wojnarowicz and so on; artists “who lived in societies that starved them of sustenance or otherwise attempted to curtail and punish their erotic and intellectual lives” but who made work “that bubbles with generosity, amusement, innovation and creative rage.” While each essay is profoundly fascinating and illuminating, my favourites are the ones on Agnes Martin, Joseph Cornell and Georgia O’Keeffe.

For instance, Laing draws parallels between Martin’s minimalist paintings (a grid: a set of horizontal and vertical lines drawn with a ruler and pencil on canvases six feet high and six feet wide) and her difficult, spartan upbringing punctuated by her mother’s cruel silence and emotional abuse. Martin’s paintings, however, are not meant to convey any of this darkness. Laing states that what “Martin wanted to catch in her rigorous nets was not material existence, the earth and its myriad forms, but rather the abstract glories of being: joy, beauty, innocence; happiness itself.”

On Joseph Cornell’s artwork, Laing discusses how inspired by Houdini’s performances, Cornell made obsessive, ingenious versions of the same story – “a multitude of found objects representing expansiveness and flight, penned inside glass-fronted cases.”  Not restricted to his art alone, this conflict seeped into his personal life as well. More specifically, Laing elucidates how “this tension between freedom and constriction ran right through Cornell’s own life.” He was a pioneer of assemblage art, where “he roved freely through the fields of the mind while inhabiting a personal life of extremely narrow limits.” Indeed, he lived with his mother and disabled younger brother in their mother’s house in Queens, but he never married or travelled or made any attempts to radically alter his circumstances.

Meanwhile, artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat andDavid Wojnarowicz created art as a medium of resistance, to express and protest against the gross injustices against humanity – rampant racism and AIDS-phobia. Here is Laing on Basquiat…

Over and over, he redrafted America’s history, the ongoing brutalizing dynamic of racism and its long legacies. He painted slave auctions and lynchings, cartoon-style, livid, and he also made scathing accounts of what we might now call everyday racism.  

Anti-clockwise (from top Left to Right) – Artworks by Georgia O’ Keeffe, Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joseph Cornell

Wojnarowicz tragically died of Aids-related complications in 1992 and Laing brings to the fore how he was subject to an enforced silencing, first by family and then the society he inhabited. People with AIDS were unjustly ostracized at the time, there were no attempts made to understand the implications of the disease, to educate the masses, to display kindness rather than wield the rod of exclusion. But Wojnarowicz still found novel ways to express himself, to counter untruths.

Not long before he died, he made a photograph in the desert of his own face, eyes closed, teeth bared, almost buried beneath the dirt, an image of defiance in the face of extinction. If silence equals death, he taught us, then art equal language equals life.  

This particular image, fitfully, graces the cover of Funny Weather.

The ‘Frieze Columns’ contain pieces Laing mostly wrote in the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 – those paranoid years when the bombardment of current news was extreme, in many ways fuelled by Trump and his terrible Presidency. With Twitter dominating the roost when it came to continuous news and dissemination of (mis)information, the effect that it produced was one of paranoia, fear and anxiety, the perception that the world was moving too fast. At such times Laing took solace in gardening, a pastime “that situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media.” Laing also covers a variety of topics finding original ways to make interesting connections to art with political leanings – lip sewing as a form of protest, attitudes towards immigrants, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books, Virginia Woolf’s final novel ‘Between the Acts’, the Grenfell Tower fire and so on.

Subsequently, Laing presents us with essays on Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith followed by a terrific perspective on Queer British Art and the Conceptual Art movement.

In the ‘Essays’ section, Laing begins with a piece on a period in her youth when she became deeply involved in protests as an environmental activist and even attempted to live in the wild to lose herself, an endeavor that ultimately failed because she missed human connection. Then she proceeds to the topic on women writers and alcohol – how the reasons that motivated male authors to drink were in some ways similar to what fuelled women writers, but also very different. Alcoholic women authors also faced the brunt of social stigma; women drinking was a phenomena that society found hard to digest. While unhappiness mostly fanned the urge to drink for both genders, women especially had to grapple with the additional challenge of being perceived as inferior beings by a patriarchal society.

Writers such as Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, and Jean Rhys came from terrible backgrounds marked by abuse, crippling insecurity and anxiety, and explain why they took to the bottle. But despite massive drinking sessions, these writers managed to produce brilliant books that are works of art in themselves – Highsmith’s Ripley books about an immoral murderer and the consummate ease with which he switches identities are fabulous as are Jean Rhys’ four slim lucid novels about “alienated rootless women adrift among the demi-monde of London and Paris.” The latter is particularly exemplified in Sasha, the doomed protagonist of Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight.

Jean Rhys’ quintessential quartet of books…

We then come to the part titled ‘Reading’, the two essays that most resonated were the ones on Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, mostly because I had read and loved these books. Laing writes astutely about what makes Deborah Levy’s ‘Living Autobiography’ series, particularly The Cost of Living so striking…

She’s the most delicious narrator. The post-divorce landscape is well trodden by memoirists, and what makes Levy remarkable, beyond the endless pleasure of her sentences, is her resourcefulness and wit. She’s ingenious, practical and dryly amused, somehow outside herself enough to find the grim, telling humour in almost any situation. Her experience is interesting to her largely for what it reveals about society, rather than the other way round.

On Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Laing manages to convey the essence of what makes Rooney’s writing so essential, how she excels at portraying millennial relationships, the uncertainty evident in communicating their feelings.

What’s remarkable is the pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers and quivers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather.   

Just like the artists’ lives that Laing paints and the myriad facets of art that she depicts, Funny Weather itself is artfully penned – intelligent, engrossing, erudite in an engaging manner.

Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times. It is also argued that art can invoke empathy. Is this true? This is where Laing makes a very important point encapsulated in this paragraph from her introductory piece:

Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.