Five Different Truths, as Told by Women
Artist Celia Paul and writer Zadie Smith tell unique stories.
Posted Nov 11, 2019
Celia Paul is a British artist who had a relationship (and a son) with one of Britain’s most famous contemporary artists, Lucian Freud. (Freud, a descendant of Sigmund, died in 2011.) Paul has written a memoir, Self-Portrait. But it’s not about Lucian Freud: “Lucian… is made part of my story rather than, as is usually the case, me being portrayed as part of his.”
Paul was involved with Freud for 10 years. She met him as a virginal student of 18 when he was, at 55, a famous artist, and he insistently and forcefully seduced her. She soon learned that he was constantly engaged in affairs, often with other students. She nonetheless continued their sexual relationship, while also modeling for him.
Her memoir has been reviewed by the distinguished British writer, Zadie Smith (Smith has long been a professor at NYU) in the New York Review of Books, under the heading of “museography” (referring to muses).
Here is some of what Paul and Smith tell us if we can accept it.
1. Paul doesn’t see herself as #me-tooed. A 55-year-old professor seducing an entering freshman is unthinkable today. But Paul is not settling scores. This is a book about the artist, Celia Paul, as written by Celia Paul. She is clear-eyed about her relationship with Freud, but not vindictive. Paul is too concerned with her own artistry to be a victim. Per Smith, “Real masochism would surely mean unpainted paintings, unwritten poems. Whereas Paul’s work gets done (even when she was with Freud).” Paul creates her own oeuvre, which while involving portraiture, like Freud, is very distinct from Freud in style: “Freud painted the visible: flesh, breasts, eggs. Paul’s work is a visionary account of ineffable qualities, like love, faith, silence, empathy.” Freud painted family members and lovers to exert power over them; Paul paints them because she shares an inward connection with them.
2. A side trip with heroin. When Paul discovered Freud had replaced her with a new muse, despondent, she seeks support from an art school friend. Her friend suggests, “Would you like some heroin?” Paul's experience: “I feel the emptiness and misery desert me and instead I am completely at peace and full of love for everybody.” (Smith refers to this, humorously, as a “pick-me-up.”) Of course, we’ve all taken painkillers. And of course, we know to be mindful using them—a small percentage of us do become addicted to them. And we know the same can be true with heroin; the great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s current movie, Pain and Glory, depicts a director who reconnects with his childhood and creativity through heroin, then quits the drug. The antidote to addiction to drugs is purpose and connection, which Paul has.
3. Women creators can sacrifice loved ones to career, too, but often due to an excess of feeling, not neglect. Paul, unlike Freud, is intensely drawn to their son and can see herself as merging into a single entity with him. But, just as she doesn’t submerge herself in Freud, she doesn’t do so with her son Frank: “I would like to give up everything for him. I would like to be swept away and lost in this powerful tide of maternal love. I would like all my ambition and all my desires to be drowned with me. But some contrary instinct is working in me at the same time: I must save myself too.” So she gives Frank to her mother to care for. Later, in 2011, Paul gets married. Her instinct for self-preserving independence remains. She lives separately from “her beloved husband, the poet and philosopher Steven Kupfer, who has no key to her apartment.”
4. There’s pleasure in being a muse. Freud draws away from Paul as he sees that she is a serious, brilliant painter herself and has become a stronger person. His loss. “Something in me had changed. I felt more powerful and confident since becoming a mother.” But, for her part, Paul regrets what has changed as she sees Freud acknowledge her power in his painting her: “I felt honored that Lucian should represent me in the powerful position of the artist: his recognition was deeply significant to me. But underlying my pride, I felt wistful that I was no longer represented as the object of desire.”
5. Girls may seek to be a muse. Sadie Smith makes a startling confession in her review: “As a teenager, I tried to write to Freud, to offer myself up as a model. I’d seen his painting of the fleshy woman from the Department of Social Security, and being pretty fleshy myself at the time, I thought he might appreciate me as a subject—validate me as a subject, I suppose is what I mean. (I wrote a similar note to Robert Crumb.) I remember writing that letter but don’t recall sending it. Still, the role of muse-masochist was clearly in my repertoire, as it is in the repertoires of so many young girls.” How does that change? Zadie Smith is today as distinctive an artistic voice with as independent a view of the world as it is possible to imagine.
No man could write the things that Paul and Smith do—men lack their experience, their consciousness, their insight, their courage. So thank goodness for Paul’s and Smith’s Truths.