When you think of Celia Paul, you think of blue. Which isn’t entirely fair. Her paintings aren’t predominantly blue, but somehow ‘blue’ is the only thing you remember. A fuzzy cold palette of flashy cobalt through to London-drizzle grey. The blues and greys are memorable because that’s what Paul’s artworks often feel like: misty wetness or a quick dip in a still lake.
Her latest paintings, however, are not blue. Or rather, they are initially blue-ish when you take a sweeping glance around the gallery. They have to be at least a bit blue because the exhibition includes a good few paintings of blue things – most notably the ocean – and because they’re Celia Paul paintings.
But intermingled with the portraits, seascapes and brief snatches of landscape there are streaks of maroon, russet and oak-leaf green. The recurrent ‘colour’ here is that of light, as shown through flashes of clotted-cream white and the type of soft gold that flickers from candles. In one portrait of the artist’s sister, the luminescence is so intense it looks less like light through yonder window and more like the jet spray from a sprinkler system.
This exhibition coincides with Paul’s autobiography being published and there’s plenty to read into these artworks by seeing them as the output of an artist genuinely ‘finding her voice’ and fully establishing an identity outside of her famous relationship with Lucian Freud, following his death in 2011. (He features here in a small, very beautiful, joint portrait that subtly shifts the balance from artist and muse to artistic equals.) But if you’re uninterested in or unaware of the mythology surrounding Paul’s paintings and life, what you’ll see in this show is stately figures illuminated like the saints of religious iconography, and expansive stretches of enticing sea and trees frothing with blossom. There’s still plenty of blue here, but it just doesn’t feel so blue anymore.