There’s a scene in her son Nick Willing’s BBC documentary, timed to coincide with the opening of this exhibition, in which Paula Rego tells that the first thing her future husband said to her at a party in the 1950s was to ask her to take her knickers off. She complied. It seemed to encapsulate so much of the essence of this remarkable show at MK Gallery – explicit, sexually charged and compliant.
Yet, in both her own private life and in her experience of society as a whole, she reacted against the obedience with a defiance expressed in her work that was often her only outlet. The defiance was brave. The first room in the show is dedicated to her early works in Portugal where she was born and raised under the oppressive rule of fascist dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in cahoots with the Catholic Church.
Salazar Vomiting the Homeland, with its echoes of Picasso, is a title that raised her head well above the parapet with its crudely vicious but deliberately laughable symbols. Portugal’s oppressive regime induced fear and compliance that became ingrained in society. No wonder her anti-fascist father sent her to London where she attended the Slade School of Art and was joint winner of its Summer Competition, her proudest achievement she says.
In London, there was a lot of “fucking around” with scant attention paid to birth control methods. Rego underwent numerous abortions until she finally decided to keep the child of her tutor Vic Willing whom she ended up marrying and by whom she bore two further children. So it was from lived experience that her abortion series, that takes up much of the second room in the exhibition, was made.
Angry that a referendum in Portugal in 1998 to liberalise abortion was defeated, she painted these graphic depictions of the indignity and suffering of women forced to turn to so-called “back-street” abortionists as she herself had done decades earlier. She would have included blood and gore but decided that would put people off looking at them. Her women are rarely svelte. “A real lumpy, bumpy woman who has sinned – it’s an aspect of the human condition that has always appealed to me,“ she says. What’s even more disturbing about these paintings – and they are large too – is that there’s a certain ambiguity about the expressions on the faces and the poses of the women, a certain eroticism. Scary.
Much of Rego’s work incorporates elements of Portuguese folk tales which appear to be particularly cruel. Wicked stepmothers abound, animals are poisoned, that kind of thing but all with allegorical or symbolic overtones that often have a direct autobiographical significance. Her marriage to Vic Willing was constantly fraught. So, in Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey’s Tail, the monkey vomits, having been emasculated with a pair of giant scissors. Next to her another figure appears bemused. We understand that the monkey is her philandering husband while the other person is her long-time muse, Rudolf Nassauer.
Sharing the room with the abortion series are her ‘Dog Women’ pictures. As early as 1952, she had used this metaphor for the subjugation of women. She developed the idea further in 1994, the catalyst being a folk tale about a woman living in isolation who goes mad and listens to the howling wind coming down the chimney and hears a child’s voice telling her to eat her dogs. By then, she was mourning the death of Vic Willing who had died six years earlier after years with multiple sclerosis. She had both loved him and resented his being ill. The pictures are drawn in pastel which became her favourite medium of choice. Working from a model, her figures are muscular, the expressions visceral with the notions of obedience and defiance which give the exhibition its title.
According to curator and long-term friend Catherine Lampert, drawing every day from a model was a struggle. “She found it hard to do that, not hard in terms of what was relevant at the time in the art world but hard to actually do it well, to draw. Nothing comes easy to her.”
Nevertheless, Paula Rego had found the style that we now most associate with her. She continued to address moral challenges to humanity in her distinctive way. War was inspired by a newspaper photograph of the aftermath of a bomb blast in Iraq. Rego has given the people rabbit heads that gives the work a surreal and bizarre flavour, emphasising the brutality somehow. All sorts of violence takes place at the sides of the picture, then, strangely, Rego’s old dance teacher appears out of scale at the bottom right. It’s perverse, then so is war.
Paula Rego was greatly influenced by Walt Disney films and cartoons. Versions of Snow White appear in some of her works albeit in Rego style. She would often re-interpret fairy stories and scenes from books by creating tableaux in her studio with props like sofas, mirrors and various costumes in the manner of a set designer. There’s a kind of magic realism about them. They are normal rooms inhabited by people who are anything but. One picture has a group of ballet dancers dressed as ostriches reminiscent of Fantasia as well as Degas. They all wear black though and have the same face as they struggle to learn their steps.
Angel is part of The Crime of Father Amaro series taken from a 19th century novel. Her skirt gleams against the muted grey background. In her hand, the sword and the sponge are Biblical references. This is a picture of revenge, yet the facial expression is ambiguous and enigmatic. By the late 1990s when she painted this, Paula Rego had finally gained the recognition and acclaim her work had warranted. Along with her peers Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach and others, the climate for painting at this time had much improved. Angel stands as a symbol of female power and strength, qualities which Paula Rego had finally achieved in the art world. This retrospective, the first for 22 years, is a joy, disturbing yet triumphant.
The exhibition runs at the MK Gallery, Milton Keynes until 22 September 2019.
The images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.