“I’ve got rid of paintings I was very pleased with but which I knew needed to go deeper. It’s an extremely painful process; I’ve been kept awake at night, driving myself insane with remembering what I’ve lost. Images that I’ve painted over remorselessly come back to haunt me.”
With her wonderful new memoir, SELF-PORTRAIT (NYRB), celebrated life-painter Celia Paul explores her life as an artist, the evolution of her portraiture, her need for a Virginia Woolf-ian Room of One’s Own, and her 10-year relationship with Lucian Freud (c.1978-88). We get into the influence she and Freud had on each other’s work, how she took control of her life and her art, the moral component of life-painting, the importance of being selfish, the conflict for women artists between being loved and following your own path, her affinity for the artist Gwen John, her antipathy toward the word “muse,” and how much she flat-out hates being called an artist “in her own right”. We talk about the influence of Collette & Duras on her writing, her decision to incorporate her journals in the memoir and the continuity of self they reveal, why she only paints portraits of people she knows well (and why her paintings of her sister Kate as self-portraits), the uses of stillness, how she re-evaluated her life after Lucian Freud’s death in 2011, why letters are like painting, and much more. Give it a listen! And go read SELF-PORTRAIT!
“I think I was deflected from my purpose by being influenced by Lucian Freud in one crucial aspect: he was very interested in the balances of power between people, between lovers particularly.”
“I think my sister Kate & I know each other so well we hardly need to speak. A lot of the portraits I’ve done of Kate here self-portraits by proxy. She expresses what I feel. There’s nobody else in the world I’ve felt that uncanny connection to.”
“It’s so difficult to be ambitious about your own work and also be desirable. There’s a conflict between being loved and following your own path.”
“One of the saddest things about death is losing the particularity of the person: the way the mouth covers over the teeth, the way they talk, and all that. And how can heaven or some kind of Christian notion of the afterlife compare to that kind of intimate knowledge of an individual?”
“The thing about art is there always has to be a certain distance, or it doesn’t have authenticity.”
About our Guest
Celia Paul was born in 1959 and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is in the collections of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery (London), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her major solo exhibitions include Celia Paul, curated by Hilton Als, at the Yale Center for British Art (2018) and the Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California (2019); and Desdemona for Celia by Hilton at Gallery Met, New York (2015–16). Her work was included in the group exhibition All Too Human at Tate Britain (2018). She lives and works in London. Her new book is SELF-PORTRAIT.
Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Celia Paul at her studio in London by Alice Mann/Institute, for The New York Times. Photo of Painter and Model, 2012, by Celia Paul, © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice. It’s on my instagram.