Paul has now turned 60. The publication of this, her first book, is of great significance. In her youth she kept a diary. When she began writing poems, their need for economical expression proved a bridge towards the wordless language of paint, as painting gradually took over. But having recently returned to writing again, she has found a new confidence, in words, in herself and in her painting. Much of the narrative in this book circles around her turbulent relationship with Lucian Freud. ... Paul’s memoir therefore seems fresh, and comes as a surprise. Her views, both intimate and yet more distant and independent, enable her to recall hidden aspects of Freud’s life, his vulnerability, vanity, tenderness and undoubted need of her, as well as his brutality towards women.
Self-Portrait makes clear just how much Freud was influenced and energized by Paul as an artist as well as a lover and subject, but there has been little allowance for others in the story of his genius. Though well it might, Celia Paul’s book does not feel angry. Instead, the author draws on the rare reflective power she exhibits in her art, to communicate what, she found, painting could not.
At the start of her book, Paul explains that she would rather tell her life ‘in images’, not words. Yet as a young woman she kept a diary, ‘mostly about Lucian Freud, with whom I was in a relationship’. She was eighteen when she met Freud (he was in his mid-fifties) and twenty-eight when their relationship ended, though ‘we were to remain connected until his death, through our son, Frank Paul, and through painting’. Her memoir focuses almost entirely on the ten years she spent with Freud. It was the 1980s and she had grown up on
Among Freud’s myriad relations, lovers and friends, none can have brought a reader so close to him, none can have detailed so tellingly the fluctuating dynamic of magnetism and despair, the assertion of will in the face of domination. Paul tells with brilliant immediacy the story of their first meeting, her reluctance, her fascination, her gradual succumbing. It is tender, exciting, touching and never prurient. But it is brutal too. ‘I felt exposed and hated the feeling,’ she recalls of the first time she sat for him, lying naked in an awkward pose: ‘I cried throughout these sessions.’ Their ten-year relationship is told unflinchingly, without rancour or self-pity, the hopes, the betrayals, the birth of their son, until at last Paul escapes the gravitational pull of the great man and consolidates her own career.
In this fascinating memoir, you watch a woman being gradually eviscerated by love-torture. Illustrated with Celia Paul's paintings, it is partly a pitilessly honest re-living of that ten-year episode of her life, and partly a meditation on the eternal problem of how to juggle lovesickness and an artistic career. It's also an enthralling examination of female self-esteem: how it can be slowly destroyed and, eventually, rescued. Celia came from a warm, kind, sane Church of England family. Every time she retreated back to her family home to get away from the emotional violation going on in London, I sighed with relief — partly because, away from Freud, she could at last get on with her true vocation of painting.
Self-Portrait seems a long-delayed correction of that power balance: she is her own sitter now; Freud will appear as a part of her life, rather than she being perpetually a part of his. In this last aim, I’m not sure she succeeds. Even so, the book takes on a significance beyond a personal story that is often pathetic and sometimes grubby. It puts yet another twist to our view of Freud: a man of his time, perhaps, but (we think) not of our own. And it turns into a sort of myth about the misuse of fame and the male ego, about the struggles faced by creative women, about the body in all its guises. Like a myth, it unfolds with confusions and contradictions, a terrible inevitability and many, many discomfiting truths.