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Art review: Celia Paul: Recent Work and Separation, Marlborough Fine Art, London


Celia Paul is the least noisy portrait painter in oils imaginable. Her subjects - which usually tend to be relatives, close friends or herself - exist within a kind of religiose hush of rapt self-absorption.

There is no hubbub and no wildness of gesture. The nature of their looking, and they way their hands are folded upon each other, smack of the early Renaissance – Masaccio and others. The figures themselves often look  attenuated and, when compared with the sitters, a little older than their actual age.

I call them religiose, but until now her links with religion have been under-emphasised. Not now. This new show includes a series of paintings, collectively entitled Separation, which were first shown at Chichester Cathedral. These are paintings which circle around the subject of the Virgin Mary – there is a Pieta, an Assumption, and an Annunciation, for example, all events at which Mary was a significant human player.

Not all these paintings are successful. Pieta, for example, seems to strain too far in the direction of the traditional – but it is a traditional slightly inflected by the lessons of Cubism, which makes it feel awkward, neither quite one thing nor the other. Best of all are the ones in which she has substituted one of her familiar models for the figure of the Virgin. The Annunciation shows us a woman, risen up from a glowing bed at the corner of an otherwise empty room,  approaching a window, a wonderful light source. The light from that window seems be engulfing her. In fact, she is entirely suffused by it. She appears to be rising out of herself, rhapsodically.

Even more interestingly lateral in its thinking is The Assumption, which is more a kind of turbulent landscape than any portrait of the Virgin being caught up into the heavens. In fact, there is not a sign of her. Instead, what we have here is a painting of elemental turbulence, which puts us in mind of that statement made at the hour of the Crucifixion – the earth itself seems to be in a state of agony.

Celia Paul, it has to be said, is not so good at painting men. There are three portraits here which contain images of Frank, her son by Lucian Freud. Why do they lack conviction? Her strength has always been in that ability to expose the precariously ethereal nature of the human presence. Frank looks too solidly earthbound, too much burdened by his physicality. He lacks imaginative flight.

To 3 May (020 7629 5161)