It is October… how is it October?! It is literally less than 100 days to Christmas. How are you doing? Good? Good. We move.
A few summers ago I spent a short stop in Lisbon and took the train to the bucket list destination in Cascais, the seaside town which I talk about on the blog here. But it wasn’t simply that I wanted to spend a day by the sea, that was a minor part of it, I wanted to pay homage to the Paula Rego museum. To say Rego’s work is incredible is stating the obvious; her art is meaningful and moving. You see the surface and the layers beneath right before your eyes. Her work is powerful and the meanings obvious, punchy and disturbing It forces the observer to go beyond the banal confinements, and pushes you to the limit and then a little further.
Her women are not designed for the male gaze, they are what she wants them to be, powerful on paint and paper, and ever more real. Present. Their bodies are not slight.
Rego’s paintings tell a story, one frame is not simply one frame but all before and most importantly what is outside the frame; as is the case with The Murderess where the little girl is about to murder her pet dog who is sick. This painting is really said to be a metaphor for the status of her marriage at the time with an ailing husband at home and a love affair which would take her to the most wonderful places to view spectacular works of art. In this work, the model is the girlfriend of her son, the little girl has a stocking in her hands about to strangle her sick dog, to whom she tended to in earlier works in the series.
Her work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarf hearkens back to Rego’s own memories of growing up in Portugal under the oppressive Antonio de Oliviera Salazar and his complete infiltration into the family life. It is an exploration of her past in a way that is both viscerally personal and dramatic.
There are no fantastical worlds here, and often times the narrative is not pretty, much like the Untitled (Abortion) series that tackles so bluntly the issue of abortion that mirrors the failure of the abortion referendum in Portugal in 1998. The series depict women who had just had back alley abortions and the aftermath. It’s the pain, the sheer agony you can feel simply looking at these paintings. Rego herself admits to having had abortions as a young woman, and the shame that came with it at the time; the fear and the sheer terror. It was more than Rego herself, it was a matter of life and justice especially for women who are often the victims of these draconian laws and male patriarchy, that seek to control our bodies. Rego draws from her own story and that of the life that unfolded around her in the fifties at The Slade.
The Possession series posits the subject in the grip of depression; lying on a couch, sparsely decorated setting, each painting at different moments from day to night. It is easy to feel the trauma of the subject, the day rolls from light to dark, she is on the same couch, in different position unable to shake it off until the moment wants to be shaken off. This feels too real.
My favourite work of hers is The Dance. She was working on it when her husband, Victor Willing, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and he died six months before completion. Of all her works I find this most personal, because it is her complete life story in a nutshell. Fascinatingly enough Willing here is her son, Nick Willing who posed in his father’s stead, because Victor was too sick to pose for the picture. As his father, Willing appears twice in this painting; dancing with Paula and then with a blonde, the face of whom we do not see, but his conspiratorial glance at us, says it all. Paula also appears twice in this painting; dancing with her husband, their stance open and happy, and then alone; her figure larger than the others, as if she is somehow blossomed into her second innings. Initially this painting was of women dancing but on advise of her husband, she included him in it and made it about him too and his role in her life and that outside of the home. This is them; their love, loss, and the moments in between. From childhood as a little girl to marriage to death of her husband, even Salazar’s Portugal. Her show in 1988, six months after Willings’ death at the Serpentine would catapult her into a new stratosphere of fame and recognition thought The Dance was not a part of that exhibition, but was the culmination of this era in her life. Willing was also her biggest cheer leader; he immediately understood her work and its importance, maybe even before she did.
Love, Devotion and Lust is another series that depicts women existing in a repressive society subservient, but what Rego does here, as is present through out her work, is super impose the women no matter their position in the painting without it being caricature. The sister undoing her brother’s shoe; he is the one dressed as a soldier, but it is her we zero in on; her red dress, handbag and glove to the side, the little cockerel… everything but him is important in this painting; my favourite from the series.
Her work traverses many themes and worlds, many meanings and interpretations, many realities and stories. She leaves it all on the canvas. It is cathartic, at times uneasy, sad and beguiling… it is an artist brought to life over and over again, pivotal moments and all. An exploration between the extremes of life, passions and desires amidst needs that must be met, devotion and duty. There is a tension in her work; that fight between the calm and the storm, shadows and light. Do we? Should we? Women in all their power, physically and otherwise. Her work exists to inform us in the moment and stay with us long afterwards.