Standing alone in a room filled with Celia Paul, I wanted to cry. A feeling had washed upon me not unlike that of a cold room heated for the first time in weeks.
An exhibition on Paul’s work at the Yale Centre for British Art opened last Tuesday with a lecture by Hilton Als. Curated by Als, a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic at the New Yorker and a friend of the artist, “Celia Paul” consists of six paintings on the second floor and a painting in the salon-style Long Gallery. Pauls’ presences, however, permeate the entire Centre: Paul’s painting in the Long Gallery lives in a wall of freshly curated British landscapes, and another wall has been reshuffled to include a selection of portraits by Paul’s favorite artists.
Paul’s works contend with loss: these works, in particular, were produced after the death of her mother. Like songs in a wearied falsetto, Paul’s paintings cleave open a thrumming realm of deep effervescence. Each brushstroke trembles with tragedy, presenting seascapes that feel anachronistic even in their own rhythm, at once alienated from and intimately bound up in the persona of the artist.
Celia Paul’s work is autobiographical, and the writing about her work reflects this. As Als noted in his lecture, Paul’s life story has taken on a life of its own — ironic, since the artist told BOMB Magazine that she is “a very private person.” Born in 1959 in Kerala, India, where her parents were practicing as missionaries, she was an unusually precocious child. The fourth of five sisters, she had always been particularly close to her mother. At the age of four, her parents decided that she, too, would partake in the upper- and middle-class British tradition of boarding schools. She was set to join her older siblings, away from her mother, in school at Tamil Nadu. Resolved to remain by her mother’s side, Paul stopped eating and became deathly ill. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with leukemia: to improve their daughter’s chances of survival, Paul’s parents uprooted a life of fifteen years in India and moved back to London. Shortly after, she was declared cured of cancer.
As a teen, Paul attended boarding school in Devon, where she and a friend, Linda, voraciously practiced art. Her art teacher, having noticed her talent, wrote to Sir Lawrence Gowing to advocate for her admission to the Slade School of Fine Art. He was impressed by her portfolio, and at 17, Paul moved to London.
Sir Gowing’s “Sketch for A Portrait of Celia Paul,” a painting referenced by Als in his lecture, captures this vision of the young artist: in the haze of wide brushstrokes, a reverie of youth in the windswept golden blonde of her hair, an arm raised as if holding a brush, a pair of barely defined pupils, a project in the making.
It was at Slade that she met Lucian Freud, a foremost painter and portraitist of the 20th-century, who was at the time a visiting tutor. They soon began a romantic relationship and bore a child — the subject of much rumor, writing and speculation.
Paul came of age as an artist in the infamous Young British Artists generation, a loosely defined group of artists who began to exhibit together in 1988. The most notorious among them is Damien Hirst. His piece “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” features the carcass of a shark, slack-jawed and staring into the distance as if in the middle of a yawn, suspended in a solution of blue formaldehyde. This is the context in which Paul lived and worked early in her career: a scene with a penchant for the loud, the monumental.
Contemporary tastes have revived an interest in the personal. Paul’s revolution occurs at the site of the canvas, as much a statement about medium as it is of subject matter. In a self-portrait at the YCBA, “Self-Portrait, March,” (the artist has taken to painting one portrait every month), she sits staring straight ahead, a thick black impasto built up between her brows that the eye cannot help but be drawn to. It is difficult to divert your attention from this void. You have to pull your eyes away to look into her eyes, slightly glazed over yet deeply penetrating. Her portraits are contingent on a contract with the viewer: They must enter with the intent of fully seeing her.
In the forward march of her life, places remain: the grounds of Lee Abbey, where she lived between eleven and seventeen and to which she returns every year; the Yorkshire parsonage, where she spent some of her youth; the landscapes of Walberswick, East Anglia, on the Suffolk coast. In her work, a physical motif remains — the sea.
The sea is never still: a history of silence and violence constantly bubbles under its surface. Paul is painting the seas she knows, but in effect, she is painting every sea — she stated in the YCBA leaflet for this show that her sea paintings are “sort of dreamed up.” In “Clouds and Foam,” the sky and the sea blur together in a web of horizontals, accented by the impastoed yellow of light and the white of sea foam, at once figuration and abstraction. Paul’s seascapes emerge from a process of becoming and disappearing, temporally specific yet ever-present.
Paul’s landscapes are reminiscent of a wall of John Constable’s cloud studies at the YCBA. The blush of color palette, effusive form rendered on canvas: The formal similarities are clear. But their narrative lives also bear parallels. Constable’s cloud studies were intensely personal and private — overwhelmingly sky, there wasn’t enough ground. They were never meant to be exhibited. It is the personal made public.
In autobiographical art, the artist herself is inevitably put on display, vulnerable to the cold judgment of taste and the subject of speculation. One gets the sense that Paul has hardly been a speaker of her life in words — her narratives live in the realm of her paintings.
This is not the first time that Als and Paul have collaborated — in 2015, they premiered an exhibition at the Gallery Met in the Metropolitan Opera of New York entitled “Desdemona for Celia by Hilton” in conjunction with a production of Verdi’s “Otello.” In the publication for the exhibition, Als draws parallels between Desdemona’s treatment and the ways in which Paul’s story has been narrated.
The exhibition at the YCBA was in part a collaboration with the artist, although final decisions remained up to Als. We are seeing Paul — curated through the eyes and words of someone else – but perhaps closer to the version of herself she wishes to portray. A 2015 interview of Paul by Als for the magazine BOMB conspicuously omits Als’s questions at his request: her answers, implicating questions, are left to speak for themselves.
In a room where things and people are bathed in the light of their subjectivity, unrestrained in their depiction of womanhood, Paul’s work not only inhabits sight but also takes over: a poignant, wrenching echo that reaches deep into souls. In “My Sisters in Mourning,” Paul paints her four sisters after the death of their mother in 2015. Dressed in white-grey robes, they sit with their hands folded on their laps, age and fatigue lining their faces. It is an intimate song of sorrow, a song that lingers.
“Celia Paul” at the Yale Centre for British Art will be open from April 3 to Aug. 12, 2018.
Sheau Yun Lim | firstname.lastname@example.org