Reviewed by Karen Langley
In recent years, artist Gwen John’s star has risen, with her work nowadays receiving much more acclaim than that of her brother Augustus. However, this was not always the case, and additionally John’s life and work was often judged by her relationship with the much older sculptor Rodin. Celia Paul is a modern-day artist who has suffered from the same reductive view, and in a fascinating new book she tackles the issues that have faced both her and John, and indeed many other women artists. The book is called Letters to Gwen John and it’s a moving and beautiful tribute to both of its subjects.
Paul has felt a life-long connection with Gwen John, discerning parallels in their experiences and attitudes. In Letters…, she sets out to explore those links by initiating an imaginary correspondence with John, reaching out over the decades to discover how attitudes have changed, how women artists are still held to different standards, how hard it is to maintain your artistic fire and the sacrifices which have to be made. The result a work which perhaps defies description but which is full of lyrical, beautiful and thought-provoking writing.
Paul’s first letter is dated 14th February 2019, and the final one is 11th November 2020. During that period of time, Paul’s correspondence (which she acknowledges in the first sentence of the first letter is an ‘artifice’) is alternated with sections where she writes about John’s life, work, loves and friendships, as well as her own. Although there were similarities between them, a striking difference is the fact that John never had children; Paul has a son, and chose to have him brought up mainly by her mother to allow her to continue to work. Of course, the reactions to a woman doing this as opposed to a man are very different…
“When you were in the last years of your life, around the same age as I am now, you had many infatuations… I’d like to talk to you about them some time. It’s impossible to believe, isn’t it, that if one is over-mastered by the most powerful emotions, the object of our desire doesn’t reciprocate our feelings?”
Both Celia Paul and Gwen John were involved in relationships with much older artists; as mentioned earlier, in John’s case the sculptor Rodin; and in Paul’s the painter Lucien Freud. Inevitably, therefore, they have been judged and defined by those relationships rather than their work. This is something which almost always happens to woman artists and never to male ones, and it’s clear that Paul is frustrated by this. As well as the irritation of not being accepted as an artist in your own right (a phrase she hates), there’s the whole issue of control, of the potential gaslighting of an older partner. It’s clear from Paul’s comments that her relationship with Freud was a complex and often difficult one.
Although you might think that by necessity the dialogue here would be a one-way affair, Paul very cleverly incorporates into her narrative extracts from Gwen John’s letters and notebooks as published by the National library of Wales, as well as sources such as Augustus John’s memoir Chiaroscuro. So by entering into this dialogue with John, Paul not only explores both of their lives as artists, but also very pertinently what it means to be a woman artist; whether in the 20th or 21st century, the challenges faced are surprisingly similar. Paul’s writing is beautiful and lyrical, and she often signs off her letters ‘With a handshake’, apparently the greeting Vincent van Gogh regularly used in his letters to his brother Theo.
“The really sad thing is…that each of us is enclosed. Each one of us holds our life within us, shut in as if by a prison wall. We only have words. We break open the barrier of skin with our mouths and try to utter some sort of grotesque caricature of the woundedness we all of us feel.”
The later parts of the book cover Paul’s experiences in the recent pandemic, and I found her explorations of how her creativity worked during that period to be fascinating. Her London flat is near the British Museum, and the enforced peace and silence during the lockdowns seemed to inform her work. The almost discreet presence of the virus in her narrative was never intrusive, but it was interesting to see how the restrictions affected an artist who had mainly focused on painting her family. Her own work moved towards landscape paintings during the period and these are stunning. Poignantly, at the end of the book she pays tribute to her husband, who sadly passed away just after her narrative ends, and it’s clear that they found a form of relationship which allowed her to continue with the space she needed to create, while maintaining that marriage
As well as making fascinating and compelling reading, it has to be said that Letters to Gwen John is a beautiful object in its own right. It’s copiously illustrated with paintings by both Paul and John and they complement each other wonderfully. I don’t think I’d seen any of Paul’s work before and it’s astonishingly good. Her pictures of the sea, the landscape around the British Museum and her portraits are just marvellous, and seeing them next to John’s work (which I already loved) makes for a wonderful juxtaposition. It also enhances the reading experience because the works she discusses are there in front of you – a beautifully put together volume.
Letters to Gwen John was a glorious book from start to finish. Despite it being a chunky little hardback, I found it a remarkably quick read because I couldn’t put it down. Paul provides a wonderful, moving narrative which explores her own life and that of Gwen John, and by doing so brings much insight in to the struggles women face when their art has to be the most important thing in their lives. Both Celia Paul and Gwen John remain vital and inspirational figures, and this book is a wonderful celebration of them both.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and strongly believes in the necessity of art.
Celia Paul, Letters to Gwen John (Jonathan Cape, 2022). ISBN 9781787333376. 341pp, hardback.
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