Household Tales

Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance

I think I first saw a Paulo Rego work at the Anthea Turner Gallery, a drawing of a back street abortion in the Youth exhibition which was the first of their shows to make a splash. It was simultaneously fascinating and painful, heartbreaking. There was an exhibition in Hastings of some recent work, inspired by a Spanish book, Hélia Correia’s The Boy Who Loved the Sea and some self portraits, made after a fall. There was a fairy tale quality to them; indeed I later saw an exhibition of fairy tale inspired pictures by chance at the Marlborough Gallery. She also showed up at a late room in the predominantly make Painting From Life exhibition at Tate Britain.

A retrospective in Milton Keynes — which is going on to Edinburgh and Dublin — allows us to look at her work from the early 1960s to more or less the present day. There are hints of fairy tales here, again, echoes of a range of earlier painters and pictures which take off from Portuguese history (the assassination of Carlos I and his son, the regime of António de Oliveiro Salazar). There are drawings and paintings from her campaign for legal abortion. It becomes obvious that she is often working with the same handful of models — notably Lila Nune, her husband’s nurse and assistant, familiar from Hastings, and Anthony Rudolf, an author. There are hints in the paintings of private sorrows and pains, of confidences we are inadvertently observing.

The early works are the most colourful and busiest, in the mode of Jean Dubuffet. Her Regicide (1965) shows the assassination of Carlos I in 1908, whilst echoing the death of John F. Kennedy in Dealey Plaza. In Centaur (1965) she offers a feminist take on mythology, drawing on the work of Jane Harrison (who was in a relationship at one point with Hope Mirlees) to offer a female human-horse hybrid, among other figures on a pink background. I wonder if the pink offers some irony.

She read Harrison with Victor Willing, art tutor, lover, later husband and father of her children. After the breakdown of his first marriage, they lived together in Portugal, and he took over her father’s business interests when he died. In the mid 1960s, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and his health went into a slow decline. From the gap in the exhibition for the 1970s, I can only assume that the combination of looking after him and raising children serious cut into her time as painter. The family moved to London in 1974.

We see various paintings of adults caring for other adults, or children dressing animals, and there is a sense that these are representations of those years. There is a hint of Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode in here — she draws heavily on other artists, as well as photographs and cartoons, whilst transforming them.

Some of the paintings form triptychs — which in traditional art has a religious theme and get associated with altarpieces — some are part of series. Her The Pillowman (2004) paintings are inspired by Martin McDonagh’s play of the same name, and feature crucifixion imagery. The play, about a series of child murders, nests in other stories; the key one is about a girl who thinks she is the second coming and starts blessing people, but who kills her stepfather with an apple filled with razor blades. Alongside the disturbing images from the play are more personal images, such as a toy plane. Here I wonder if there is a touch of the Stanley Spencer in her Biblical story in present day locations.

One such is her paintings inspired by The Crime of Father Amaro (1875) by José Maria de Eça de Queirós, in which a priest falls in love and seduces his landlady’s daughter, Amélia. She dies (spoilers!) after the death of her child and he moves on, apparently unscathed, to another parish. Rego doesn’t necessarily directly paint scenes from the novel, preferring a freer interpretation, and in one painting allows sympathy for an Amaro, imprisoned between lust and chastity. She adds an extraordinarymmmm image of an avenging female figure, Angel (1998), with Christian symbols of sponge and sword. Rudolf, meanwhile, was her model for Amaro. Here she in part draws upon Bartolomé Esteban Murillo paintings she saw at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Here, as elsewhere, the name of Angela Carter springs to mind and her reworking of fairy tales. Whilst these are evidently feminist versions of older material, there is an ambiguity to them in that the masculine and violent is not necessarily rejected out of hand. I think there is a lot more to be thought through here, especially with Rego’s treatment of nursery tales.

Her friend Rudolf Nassauer is the model for Joseph’s Dream (1990), one of several paintings of female artists — such as Painting Him Out (2011) which features Rudolf. The dream painting has an old man asleep in a chair and a female artist working on a image of him, inspired by the National Gallery painting she saw during a residency, Philippe de Champaigne‘s Dream of St Joseph, complete with angel and Virgin Mary.

I’d love to see more Rego, and certainly need to find time to read the catalogue. Somewhere there is a resonance to be found with Carter, as in this quotation: “Painting pictures is like being a man really. It’s the part of you that’s the man. Even the way you stand or sit, confronting the work like a man, and it has to do with the aggressive part. It has a kind of push, the thrust, which must normally associate with being a man.”

I’m not sure I agree — but the prejudice against women looking remains strong.

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