“I’m going to read a piece today that discusses Celia’s life just as she’s becoming an artist,” said critic Hilton Als to an overflowing auditorium at the Yale Center for British Art, in a lecture about the life and work of British painter Celia Paul. “I thought you might know enough about her from newspaper interviews and the like. Her association with Lucian Freud, her child [with Freud], the years of struggle with security. I thought that I would let others write that, and I would write about the spirit and energy and grace in her paintings, and her lifestyle that led up to all of those things.”
Als, a staff writer and theater critic for The New Yorker, spoke this past week about Paul’s upbringing and personal development, her aesthetic origins and literary counterparts, and her place within the traditions of both British and international art. Paul was born in 1959 to Christian missionaries in South India. When she was five, she moved to England with her family — including four sisters, whom she would later paint sitting together after their mother’s death.
The lecture coincided with the opening of an exhibition of six of Paul’s paintings at the YCBA. The exhibition runs through Aug. 12.
Six paintings may sound like a small group, but this is an extremely selective half-dozen. The works — strong portraits with a direct gaze (including My Sisters in Mourning, the still, ethereal group mentioned above) and densely textured, turbulent landscapes and seascapes — were captivating enough to keep viewers stopping to look at each one, then another, then the first one again.
After Als’s scrupulously (and tenderly) detailed talk, the paintings in person seemed larger than life. It was as though Als had just read aloud a novella about a character named Celia Paul, rich with the history and imagery that fuels her artistic vision, with excerpts from letters in Paul’s own words, and with the metaphorical connections Als draws between Paul and other artists and writers. And so encountering the pictures in the gallery — even after having just seen them in a slide show — was a pleasure and a bit of a jolt as well, as though the paintings were illustration plates from that book composed jointly by Paul, her family, friends, lovers, and teachers, and Als himself.
Paul — in the audience for the lecture by her longtime friend, then moving quietly among the guests at the opening — had conferred with Als on the choices, but let him take the reins on the final assortment. Speaking in a self-possessed whisper after a bout of laryngitis, Paul explained, “Hilton visited my studios and just said, ‘I’ll have that one, that one.’ He has such a clear instinct for what will work.”
The room at the YCBA that contains the paintings — an enclosed nook that recalls the fence surrounding the unicorn in the famous medieval tapestry — seemed ideal to Paul as well.
“I think it’s got a bit of quietness — it’s almost like a chapel space,“ she said. “It’s connected to the permanent collection, but private as well. And I feel very definitely like I belong. I feel a sense of continuity between me and a lot of the British artists presented here. Yet it’s a kind of sheltered, private space as well.”
The rest of the museum’s artworks — a number of them, housed in the fourth-floor Long Gallery, specially selected by Als as a tribute to Paul’s influences (and a seventh painting of Paul’s as well) — made for an apt welcome committee for a British artist.
“I know a lot of them from reproductions; in fact, I’ve got a postcard of that [J. M. W.] Turner—Staffa, Fingal’s Cave. And, obviously, seeing the Gwen John [painting] is so dear to me…. I mean, every artist, every British artist I love is represented here.”
Though this was only Paul’s second trip to the United States — the first was for a major show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — her work is beginning to hop the pond more regularly, to Paris, Greece, Israel, and, increasingly, across America.
Als’s curated exhibit of Paul’s work is the first in a series of three such personal selections and lectures for the YCBA, which will continue with Lynette Yiadom-Boakye in 2019 and Njideka Akunyili Crosby in 2020, and culminate in a book on all three artists. Paul was a reader of Als’s work long before they met.
“He’s a great, great writer,“ she said, calmly. “I think he’s a very inspiring person. I’ve never quite met anyone like him before.”
It’s a deep mutual admiration. Paul’s paintings stand on their own without need of explanation, eerie, poignant, and commanding. Yet Als’s overview of everything that has led to both Celia Paul and her work added a meaningful layer to both. “She builds up on a series of canvases a great originality, an emotional breadth, a vocabulary of loss,” Als said, “of loss even before it happens.”