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Celia Paul: Mothers and daughters

Celia Paul has made a career out painting portraits of her mother. But her latest exhibition, which opens today, is an exploration of the similarities between her and her four sisters and the identity crisis that large families can cause.

Having four sisters has made artist Celia Paul’s identity “kind of questionable,” she says. Referred to as “all of you” by their mother, the five daughters are so alike that people take delight in comparing them: “Oh you look just like Jane/Kate/whatsername”. As any child from a big family will, I think, understand, having your parents’ gene pool replicated in siblings around you gives one a strangely collective sense of self. Paul sought to capture the subtleties of her family look for her latest exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art, which opens today.

Painting her family is by no means a new thing for Paul. She discovered aged 17, while taking up an early place at The Slade, that drawing a life model, a stranger, brought her nothing but bafflement. “She [the model] meant nothing to me, so I couldn’t work from her,” she says. “It seemed important to me to work from someone who mattered to me. And the person who mattered most to me was my mother.”

This discovery led Paul to a 35-year career painting her mother, whom she describes as her Mont Sainte-Victoire. Just as Cezanne replicated that same landscape, the view from his window, over and over, Paul’s work repeats the contours and shapes of the face that first looked on her. Choosing her mother as her muse is rather interesting. After all, in classical mythology, the Muses sprang from the earth’s creators, the gods Uranus and Gaia, and inspired the creation of art. Muse as creator, and therefore mother, is a nice motif. But when her mother reached her 80s and became too frail to climb the numerous steps to Paul’s London studio, the artist had to search for her next source of inspiration.

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“In the mid-Eighties I did a group portrait of all my sisters with my mother in the centre. My father had only recently died so the picture was about loss, I suppose,” Paul says. She imitated the set-up of this earlier painting for a recent work, dressing her four sisters alike in shapeless cotton dresses (“a kind of uniform”) and placing herself peering reflected in a mirror behind them. It is a striking, vibrant portrait in dripping watercolour: each sister’s face is similar, yet distorted by expression. Paul’s own presence in the picture, replacing her mother’s its earlier rendition, is also telling: if the original was about the loss of her father, the new one is about the loss of painting her mother.

Paul’s work is quite serious. But, as the exhibition’s title Identity suggests, she is playing with notions of herself. She tricks the onlooker with small individual portraits, apparently of her sisters, but puts a couple of self-portraits in there to shake things up. “Your identity is important when you have four sisters. The similarities between us made me think of the fragility of identity, not just my family’s but in portraiture as a whole. It is really something so subtle to conjure up the presence of the sitter. So, to bring out in a row of women the minute, very telling differences – the ways they position their feet and hands, the tilt of their head, everything – becomes much more specific.”

Paul was keen to exhibit her work at the Marlborough gallery because it will hang alongside a separate show titled Mothers and Daughters. “I really think this is a subject which hasn’t been explored at all in art. I do think mothers and daughters stay close in a way that is different from mothers and sons. The mother and son motif goes back to Mary and Jesus and is a very family subject in art.” You need only look at the maternal portraits made by Whistler, Matisse and Lucien Freud to see her point. But this doesn’t mean she’d be averse to exploring the relationship between herself and her own son. “I would actually like to go on to explore this with my own son. My mother actually helped me to bring him up so he’s featured in portraits with her. But I’ve only recently started working from him alone.”

Paul says it is wrench no-longer painting her mother – “It was so much part of a routine her coming to sit for me” – but she sounds cautiously liberated by it, as if no longer painting her mother is forcing her to forge a new artistic identity. The new exhibition is a huge and complimentary tribute to her muse and creator, her mother, but it is also a fledgling flight in a new direction.


Celia Paul, Identity, is at Marlborough Fine Art from today until 27 February, marlboroughfineart.com