In April of this year, writers Sheila Heti, Jenny Offill, and Jia Tolentino converged at Bennington College to give a colloquium called “How to Be an Art Monster.” The term “art monster” comes from Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation: “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.” Heti, Offill, and Tolentino would explore how marriage, motherhood, and other attachments can both nourish and impinge on women’s art.
Within minutes, the conversation turned to painter Celia Paul. In her 2019 memoir Self Portrait, Paul recounts her decade-long love affair with the renowned painter Lucian Freud, which began in 1978. In 1984 she gave birth to their son and resolved to put art over motherhood, leaving him as an infant with her mother. Painful as it was, she did not regret the choice. Tolentino and Heti admired Paul’s clarity about her own absolutism.
Paul’s absolutism is modeled after that of Welsh artist Gwen John. Paul has felt a lifelong connection to John, which she explores in her exquisite new book Letters to Gwen John (New York Review Books, 2022). Like Paul, John — born in 1876 — sought isolation to nurture her art, and as a young woman took a famous lover, sculptor Auguste Rodin. Both women oriented their lives around being artists and were diverted by romantic entanglements that reduced them to muses. But Paul also recognizes in John the conflict between craving intimacy and needing solitude.
Letters to Gwen John paints equally detailed and revealing portraits of Paul and John. To place their two lives in dialogue, Paul elegantly shifts between biographical, diaristic, and epistolary modes. For nearly two years, she maintained a one-sided correspondence with John, recounting memories, sharing stories, telling secrets, documenting travels, and asking questions that will never be answered: “Did you feel threatened when [your brother] became an artist?” “Did you ever long for a child?” Her letters sometimes become supplications: “Please help me, Gwen,” she writes on January 24, 2020, “to work my way through these feelings of panic and fear — of aging, or loneliness — somehow.”
Paul writes to John as one would a mentor, a confidant, a dear friend, with particular interest in the parallels between their love lives. Nearly a decade after Lucian Freud’s death, Paul is still trying to make sense of their impassioned, inequitable relationship. She knows John would understand. Freud’s and Rodin’s looming statures in the art world carried into their relationships, as did the male artists’ generally libertine attitudes, and their advanced ages (Freud was 37 years Paul’s senior, and Rodin was 36 years older than John) inspired deference in their younger companions.
For Paul and John, the allure of their lovers drew them away from their art and its ascetic demands. Freud painted Paul, Rodin sculpted John, and neither woman ever depicted their lovers — they were, in these relationships, objects, not subjects. With four decades of hindsight, Paul sees her affair with Freud as inimical to her own künstlerroman and wonders how John might have flourished as an artist, had Rodin’s spell over her broken.
Extending grace and empathy, Paul harbors no ill will toward her younger self, nor toward John, for spending so much of their youths in thrall to these men. The solitary life of an artist makes that rare instance of connection all the more intense and intoxicating — and makes that rare lover’s absence all the more unbearable. “What is this longing about, my dearest?” Paul writes to John. “You and I know, don’t we, Gwen, about this particularly addictive poison: the waiting and the yearning?” Yet Paul feels that her productivity might suffer without unrequited desire to propel her forward. John, on the other hand, never appeared to achieve the same kind of self-understanding in her diaries or letters, which Paul carefully studied and seamlessly excerpts throughout the book.
John organized her life much like the archetypal male art monster, severing family ties and forgoing marriage and children. Any other way of life, in her view, would be antithetical to art. Just as a monk renounces earthly pleasures to access the divine, the artist sequesters herself to access genius. “Your goal was Great Art,” Paul writes to John, “and you knew you had to make sacrifices to attain it.” John would have been disinterested in — if not repulsed by — Paul’s decision to become a mother, despite the untraditional rationale behind it. Her pregnancy was an act of beneficence: “I had wanted to get pregnant so that I could comfort my mother, who was grieving for my father,” she writes.
Though it could monopolize her time, motherhood did not diminish her talent. Paul feels her work “has become more compassionate” as a result of being a mother. And when she lost precious working hours to parental responsibilities, she took comfort in “the examples of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Constable, who all had family to support and struggled through the pressures, both financial and emotional.” (Of course none of these men are remembered as artists with children — just as artists.) Their work proves that accessing genius and negotiating life’s mundanities are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps restrictions on the artist’s time and resources can sometimes even produce a generative pressure.
Paul is daunted by John’s strict adherence to detachment, but she revels in the rare moments when John reveals her ideological tensions, when she betrays that she is “as conflicted about loneliness versus companionship as I am.” In a 1911 letter to her friend Ursula, John writes, “I should like to go somewhere where I meet nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not effect [sic] me beyond reason.” Then, a few lines later, she adds, “If you possibly can, Ursula, do come soon! I could now spend time every day with you.”
The implication is that the impulse toward friendship is less dangerous and more nutritive to the artist than lust. At one point, Paul spends several days with writer and critic Hilton Als, and the pair become fast friends. They stroll around London, meet her mother in Cambridge; she sketches him in her studio. “Perhaps [Hilton] could be like the brother I never had?” she writes. After a long separation, she calls Als and, at the sound of his voice, begins to cry. “He asked if I was very lonely,” Paul recalls. “I cried out, ‘I AM lonely!’” The admission feels shameful, yet it is clear, just from his intuitive question, that he understands her better than Freud, and so many of her lovers, ever did. John, on the other hand, mostly traded the depth and durability of friendship for the excitement — however shallow or short-lived — of romantic attachment.
In John’s life, Paul sees both a blueprint and a cautionary tale. John set out to be an art monster, shunning the quotidian in favor of the sublime, though she was sometimes diverted by affairs of the heart. She died in poverty, and the reach of her legacy, despite Paul’s efforts, remains relatively limited. How can an artist know if her sacrifice has been worth it? What metric exists to use? And how does she know if her art is even any good? In writing to John, Paul doesn’t look for answers from someone unable to respond; she simply seeks solidarity: “It makes me feel less alone,” she writes, “to know you understand.”
Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul (2022) is published by New York Review Books and is available online and in bookstores.