The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

All Issues
JUL-AUG 2022 Issue

Paula Rego

Paula Rego, Untitled, 1986. Acrylic paint on paper, 44 × 30 inches.  © From the Collection of Kim Manocherian. © Paula Rego.
Paula Rego, Untitled, 1986. Acrylic paint on paper, 44 × 30 inches. © From the Collection of Kim Manocherian. © Paula Rego.
On View
Museo Picasso
April 27–August 21, 2022
Málaga, Spain

Humans have an inherent tendency to search for narratives where often there are none. Stories enable us to break down complex matters into easily digestible elements, find patterns in randomness and afford meaning to our existence. Perhaps it is in psychological arguments that we find the reason for Paula Rego’s appeal to art experts and laics alike. Rego was possibly one of the most narrative artists of her time. According to her son, Nick Willing, “Mum would always ask: ‘do you have a good story?’” Every one of Rego’s works is imbued with a tale the artist sourced from newspaper articles, biblical narratives, folk tales, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales, all of which find their origins across the regions of Portugal, Great Britain, Spain, and France. However, what distinguishes Paula Rego from an illustrator is her ability to break down known stories into constituent elements and draw on those that conform to her personal experiences and memory. By effectuating a hostile take-over of tales, she manages to evoke a profound feeling of stupefaction when the viewer recognises characters from known stories, only to discover that Rego has hijacked the storyline to reflect her subconscious and inner desires.

This monographic exhibition at the Museo Picasso Málaga is the most extensive retrospective of the artist’s work to date, and impeccably illuminates the artist’s limitless imaginative power. Curated by Elena Crippa and organized in collaboration with Tate Britain and the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, it features over eighty works, including collages, pastels, drawings, and etchings.

Paula Rego was born in Portugal in 1935 and moved to Britain in 1951, where she remained until her recent passing. Her parents were avid Anglophiles who decided that the political climate of interwar Portugal was not conducive to a healthy upbringing of a young girl. As fascism was spreading across Europe, Prime Minister Antonio De Oliveira Salazar tightened his grip over the Portuguese nation, eventually turning it into an absolute dictatorship. Paula Rego's deeply emotional experience under the Salazar rule prompted her creative action. Crippa explains that when asked about the reason for her painting, Rego responded without hesitation: “I paint to give fear a face,” referring to the perpetual fear that haunts the subjects of oppressive regimes. Discerning figurative outlines of an abstract concept of fear made the perceived threat less uncertain and dangerous. The exploration of this theme is mainly implicit in her early works, from the 1960s until the 1970s, with which the show opens. Rego uses parody to disarm the danger represented by Salazar’s political regime and translates terror into a risible matter. In Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960), the ideal man of the Salazar government, characterized by eremitism, unquestionable loyalty to the nation and labor, is depicted as an anthropophagus rascal that regurgitates the country on which it had feasted. Why is Salazar sickened by the Estado Novo, the parameters of which he had so scrupulously defined? Is Rego signaling that his reign and policies are expired, thus rendering those who consume it ill?

Paula Rego, <em>The Artist in her Studio</em>, 1993. Acrylic paint on canvas, 70 3/4 x 51 1/4 inches. © Leeds Museums and Galleries, UK/Bridgeman Images © Paula Rego.
Paula Rego, The Artist in her Studio, 1993. Acrylic paint on canvas, 70 3/4 x 51 1/4 inches. © Leeds Museums and Galleries, UK/Bridgeman Images © Paula Rego.

A similar tone of ironic political criticism can be detected in one of Rego's first collages, When We Had a House in the Country We’d Throw Marvellous Parties and Then We’d Go Out and Shoot Black People (1961), the creation of which coincided with the outbreak of the Angolan war. Here, Rego alludes to Portugal's bloody colonial ambitions that intensified under Salazar, who worked to build a land bridge that would connect Portugal's colonies on the African continent under the auspices of Estado Novo. The Surrealist propensity of her experiments in figuration, where the composition is made from a myriad of dissociated fragments, obfuscates the underlying meaning of her work. Thus, the semantic accessibility of Rego's pictures is dependent on their respective titles, which, the curator explains, was an intentional effort on the artist’s part that would shield her from Portuguese political persecution. In the instance of the discussed painting, the colonies are referred to as the country house of the nation. The white, clean tones on the left of the canvas are demarcated from the murky tones on the right, implying the racial segregation sustained by the colonial system that favored the colonizers and disenfranchised the colonized. The childish and innocent quality of this piece, achieved through reliance on experimental, heterogeneous automatism that characterizes her early work, is meant to amplify the loathsomeness of the reality depicted.

Rego’s rabble-rousing was not limited to denouncing Portugal's colonial appetite. As a woman under the Salazar regime, she was a second-class citizen in two aspects of Portugal's public life. In the socio-political sphere, she was a subject of Salazar; in the domestic sphere, she was a subject (if not an object, instead) of the Portuguese patriarchy. In glorifying nationhood and encouraging its rapid growth, the Portuguese dictatorship stripped women of their individuality and reduced them to selfless reproductive incubators. Thus, Rego concentrated her efforts on divorcing “the female” from “the Salazar” and his regime's beau ideal of women. In the late 1980s, Paula Rego started the “Girl and Dog” series, which shows girls nursing dogs. On the surface, young girls are depicted in a maternal role that is harmonious with the prototype of the Salazanista woman. Upon closer examination, however, one can observe that the dog seems reluctant and sometimes even defiant, as though a hostage held against its will. The hint of madness in the eyes of the girls suggests that their acts of nurturing—feeding, shaving (Untitled [1986]) or playing (Untitled [1986] and Snare [1987])—are, in fact, a façade for something more nefarious, perhaps a gradual poisoning under the guise of care. This is further reinforced by what one can consider as the culmination of the series, a work titled The Little Murderess (1987), where the girl character is caught right before or right after committing a cardinal sin.

The show's spectators can recognise the leitmotif of violent acts perpetrated against animals. Research in criminology demonstrates that murderers begin their serial killer careers with episodic animal mutilation. In the case of Rego's oeuvre, it is almost as if she follows this formula, albeit in the domain of themes. As the violent motif in Rego's work evolved and intensified, she redirected the acts of harm away from the animals (Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey's Tail [1981]; Untitled (Girl Shaving a Dog) [1986]) and toward her own species (The Maids [1987])

Rego elucidates the motivation behind this violent evolution: “my work is about revenge, always, always.” Suddenly slaughter pervades the domiciliary setting as Rego portrays bloodthirsty female protagonists who seek to redress wrongs through acts of violence. In a sense, her best-known pastel series, presenting women in agony after illegal abortions, Untitled (No.1 [1998]; No.2 [1998]; No.4 [1998–99]; No.6 [1999]) can be interpreted as a continuation of her homicide theme, albeit in a more notional manner: the killing of a relative yet unborn. Rego’s women are the antithesis of women as understood by conservative environments: they rebuff gendered roles, escape the confinements of the domestic, and are rebels who engage in deviant acts considered taboo vis-à-vis a female's heavily regulated existence. The artist launched a powerful existential attack on the regime, weakening its core building blocks by inciting a departure from the conformist mother and wife that embodies the linchpin of the Salazar rule. Rego kills the girls who are Portugal's future mothers.

Paula Rego, <em>The Company of Woman</em>, 1997. Pastel on paper on aluminum, 66 3/4 × 69 inches. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Victoria Miro, © Paula Rego.
Paula Rego, The Company of Woman, 1997. Pastel on paper on aluminum, 66 3/4 × 69 inches. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Victoria Miro, © Paula Rego.

Rego does not end her provocations here. After adulterating the image of a utopian woman, she turns to the topic of a family. As a unit, the nuclear family personified the pivot of the Portuguese Catholic regime. She takes the concept of familial love and extends its boundaries to the domain of incest. The ramification of this act transcends the domestic confines of the familial, and it shatters the emblem of a functioning regime grounded in values prescribed by political and religious ideologies. The incest subject matter can be noticed in a number of the exhibited works. In The Cadet and His Sister (1988), the sister is dressed in passionately blood-red clothes and is affectionately preparing her brother for war (and most likely death), and kneels at his feet, yet she is not grief-stricken. Perhaps that reaction stems from the understanding that the young soldier’s death would terminate both Portugal’s morally unjustified colonial adventurism (with the cadet’s demise being symbolic of the setbacks inflicted on Lisbon in Africa that would ultimately lead to the end of the colonial war) and the morally unjustified feeling towards a relative. Similarly, in The Policeman's Daughter (1987), a young girl is depicted with one of her hands in her father's phallic boot as she brushes and strokes it with the other. Rego proves the authoritarian project of a happy family to be quixotic in a comparable fashion to the totalitarian engineering of a perfect woman. 

Paula Rego made the political personal and the personal political. As a storyteller, she concentrated on topics of justice, morality and human emotion, masterfully illustrating her message through mythic tales and familiar settings. As a feminist, she ended the archetypical depiction of women in art as objects of voyeuristic pleasure and cast them as commanding heroines. It is unclear whether Rego had reformist aspirations or whether, like a historiographer, she sought to closely record the then-contemporary state of affairs, both public and private (although she would undeniably be outraged by the recent reversal of Roe v Wade that affirmed the constitutional right to abortion). However, if we are to evaluate her success against the objective she had set for her art, which the artist described as “want[ing] to turn things on their heads, to upset the established order, to change heroines and idiots,” then Paula Rego was indeed one of the most accomplished artists of our time.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

All Issues