Long overshadowed by her decades-long relationship with the older painter Lucian Freud, one of Britain's most important contemporary artists becomes the protagonist of her own life story, drawing on early journal entries as well as memory to depict her childhood in India, her days as an art student in London, her experiences with Freud, the challenges of motherhood, and meditations on a life in art.
It’s an account of a life so rigorously dedicated to art and family that fame seems beside the point ... As a writer, she’s possessed of a heightened sensibility, a particular vantage on to the world ... Self-Portrait illuminates what Freud’s long shadow obscured: Celia Paul herself, and an altogether different way of being an artist ... Paul speaks of Freud not as a teacher, but a lover, a man who both delighted and frustrated her. She does not engage in the question of what effect his style might have had on her artistic development, nor does she answer whether her youthful experience modeling for Freud informed her own practice of painting ... Celia Paul is a more gifted writer than she has any business being; it’s almost unfair ... Self-Portrait reads like a novel. Paul alights on a topic, offers asides and digressions, circles back to her main point. The work is written with intention but wears it lightly. ... Her painting is not an act of close observation—she’s seen these people before—but some deeper communion with the person she’s aiming to fix on canvas. It’s impressive that she’s able to render them in words, too, on the page: Freud, her parents, and, of course, herself.
... captivating ... Paul writes about her struggle to love someone while dedicating herself to her painting, explaining in her prologue that she hopes her book will 'speak to young women artists — and perhaps to all women — who will no doubt face this challenge in their lives at some time and will have to resolve this conflict in their own ways.' But this makes her mesmerizing book sound more helpful than it is, or than it needs to be; Self-Portrait is less tidy and more surprising than such a potted purpose would allow ... Paul’s powers of observation are keen and often ruthless, but she never resorts to the language of self-pity — even when a reader might expect her to. Self-Portrait reveals an abjection that declines to announce itself as such ... Pages of this book are given over to notebook entries she kept decades ago, describing her painting practice with a moving, almost painful, immediacy.
... a beautifully written bildungsroman, a 'portrait of the artist' as a young woman. It is also, more uniquely, a powerful resource for artists who face the dueling responsibilities of creation and caregiving. You don’t have to be a woman or a mother to feel this friction.