Self-portrait, by Celia Paul; The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso, by Julia Blackburn Lucy Hughes-hallett
Self-portrait by Celia Paul Jonathan Cape £20
The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso
by Julia Blackburn Carcanet £9.99
Here are two books – widely different in form – that tell the same story.
A famous painter – male, middle-aged – takes up with a very young woman. They have an affair lasting for years, but she is not the only woman in his life. She gets pregnant. He buys her a place to live but then recedes, leaving her to make what she can of the rest of her life.
Celia Paul was 18, a student at the Slade, when Lucian Freud turned up there in 1974 as a visiting tutor. On the day they met, he took her back to his flat and kissed her. He asked for her phone number but wouldn’t give her his. A week later, she was back, coins spilling out of her overcoat pockets as he dragged her down onto the hallway floor. The doorbell rang. Freud apologised. He’d forgotten, he said, that he was expecting another visitor. As Paul left, she met a fair-haired woman on the way up.
The situation is a cliché but Paul’s response to it, as recorded in this memoir, is not. True, she was inexperienced, and Freud scared her, but in describing their first encounter she uses the words ‘self-conscious’, ‘shy’ and ‘like a frightened bird’ not of herself, but of him. He is unpindownable but so is she.
Now, all these years later, she is married to philosopher Stephen Kupfer, but they maintain separate households. For her, as for Freud, solitude and work take precedence over love. When her son with Freud, Frank, was born, she handed him over to her mother, visiting only at weekends.
Paul pastes up charcoal-written notes to herself in her studio. One of them reads, ‘NO HIGHLIGHTS … KEEP TONE DOWN’. Her pictures are hermetic – in her words, ‘so private and personal that there’s almost a “Keep Out” sign in front of them’. Her palette is all in the grey area of the spectrum – luminous but with a dim, wintry light.
She keeps the tone down in this book, too. She is candid about how abject her love for Freud made her – the wretchedness of waiting day after day for a phone call; her willingness to travel all the way from her parents’ house in Hull, when summoned back to London by him, only to sit alone in a café until he was finally – at 1am – ready to take her to bed.
But that was years ago. Refusing star-struck thrills or glib indignation, she gives her relationship with Freud the importance it’s due, but no more.
There are other people in this narrative. There’s Paul’s school-friend Linda, also a gifted artist, with whom she was fiercely rivalrous (each, jealous of competition, would lock the other out of the art room). There’s Gwen John, a significant antecedent for her, both personally and artistically. There’s God: Paul’s father was a missionary and then Bishop of Bradford, and whatever Paul herself believes (she doesn’t tell us) her paintings are overtly mystical. There is her mother, her preferred model.
And, above all, there is herself. This book is an adroitly structured collage of extracts from the diary she kept when she was young (‘often overwrought,’ she now considers), letters to her sister and her coolly reflective linking narrative.
Writing it, she notes, has made her aware of the ‘unbroken connection’ between her younger and present selves – that unity, and the intelligence with which she examines it, transform this book from what might have been a banal victim-story into an impressive portrait of the artist as a young woman.
Another maestro; another ‘muse’. Visiting the exhibition Picasso 1932 at the Tate, contemplating Picasso’s paintings of the teenaged Marie-thérèse Walter, Julia Blackburn was moved to write about the woman who inspired those gorgeously voluptuous images.
Blackburn is an idiosyncratic writer who never takes the beaten path to the heart of her subject. Her profoundly sympathetic book on Goya’s late paintings approached him by way of his deafness. Her biography of John Craske, the Norfolk fisherman and embroiderer/ artist, is a haunting meditation on chance and creativity. Thinking about MarieThérèse, she ‘suddenly’ thought, she tells us, ‘I could write about her in the first person.’ Hence this vivid, touching poem-sequence in which a fictional version of Walter speaks.
When they meet, Walter has no idea who Picasso is. He takes her to a bookshop and shows her his name on the front of a glossy volume. She just laughs. Their connection is at once earthily functional and ecstatic. These poems are glittering glimpses of how they were together. Picasso, who couldn’t swim, marches into the sea as though there is nothing he cannot dominate.
Seeing how his ‘self’ vanishes in a moment of sexual rapture, MarieThérèse wonders where it goes. Is it sitting in a chair beside his wife, the two of them waiting for his return? There is humour here, a fresh quizzical eye on the artist and a lucid appreciation of what the pair gave each other and what they took.
A prose memoir and a fictional poemsequence: these formally disparate books are united, not only by the coincidence of shared subject matter, but by a shared sensibility – both of them candid, non-judgemental and illuminating.