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Celia Paul on the Restraint and Freedom in Gwen John’s Self-Portrait

‘I have learned from John that you don’t need to shout in order to make an impact’

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Gwen John, Self-Portrait, 1902, oil on canvas, 45 x 35 cm. Courtesy: Tate, London 

Her hair is parted in the middle. She looks like Emily Dickinson, who also parted her hair in the middle. Both Gwen John and Dickinson are famous for their reclusiveness. John’s gaze is direct but withdrawn. She holds the secret of her inner life intact. The painting glows from within like a dark room lit only by firelight. A brown shawl is half-slipping off her shoulders: a brilliant device that adds movement to a composition which may otherwise be too stiff. The whole image is held together by an interplay between restraint and freedom. A locket is held in place at John’s throat by a narrow, black ribbon. The face on the locket is in profile and stone-coloured. I feel that it is the face of her mother, who died when John was only eight years old. The loss of her mother must have been a sadness that she always held close to her. The quietness and intensity of this image affects me deeply. I have learned from John that you don’t need to shout in order to make an impact.

Published in Frieze Masters, issue 7, 2018, with the title ‘Artist's Artists’.

Celia Paul lives in London, UK. Earlier this year, she had a solo exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA.

Issue 7

First published in Issue 7

September 2018
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