Paula Rego, Tate Britain until 24th October, 2021.
The Anglo-Portuguese artist Paula Rego, now in her 86th year, has forged a long career in a variety of media including sculpture and etchings. This show, arranged chronologically, concentrates on her paintings which for the most part are big and bold and carry an unsettling message. She is a strictly figurative painter and her subject matter is often various forms of oppression, particularly that of women, and her imagery can have a harrowing ferocity.
Born in Portugal during the long Salazar dictatorship, she was sent to England at the age of 16 and went on to study at the Slade. In the first room are rarely seen early works in which she first explored personal and social struggle. Interrogation from 1950, painted at just fifteen years of age, is a remarkably assured comment on coercive control, showing a contorted female figure at the mercy of two faceless male guards threatening violence.
In the 1960’s and 70’s Rego’s main concern was collage, producing complex works highlighting injustice but, to my mind, not so successful pictorially. At this time she also explored Portuguese folk tales as representations of human psyche and behaviour.
It is from the mid-1980’s that Rego really hits her stride. It is then that she concentrates her attention on the single female, with a good range of arresting paintings of women who seem to have a story to tell. Thus The Soldier’s Daughter, The Cadet and his Sister, and, best of all, The Dance. In this haunting depiction of couples dancing by moonlight it is the woman on her own who holds our gaze. Rego’s figures are lumpy, somewhat misshapen and provocative. In the 1990’s she makes a series of stunning pictures of women expressing a range of attitudes and emotions: Bride, Target and, most disturbingly, Dog Woman in which her protagonist crouches and snarls like a dog, primal expression unfettered. And then, enraged by a referendum in Portugal which failed to legalise abortion, Rego pours her anger and disdain into pictures of extraordinary power. The masterpiece here is Untitled No 1 of 1998. The woman sits on a bed, legs apart, fixing us with a vacant accusatory stare, whilst on the floor is the bloodstained bucket.
Rego’s concern for abused women reaches its peak in the 2000’s with works commenting on the horrors of sex trafficking and female genital mutilation. However, it is the complexity of human behaviour which is emphasised throughout, with animals frequently sharing the frame to offer a silent commentary, or indeed standing in for their human counterparts. Thus Girl Lifting Her Skirt to a Dog is bizarre and chuckle-worthy, and my flat-out favourite is Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove, complete with sunglasses.
Throughout her career Rego has reacted to and drawn inspiration from other artists, both visual and literary. Thus we see her responses to, amongst others, Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Genet’s The Maids, and a fabulous triptych inspired by Hogarth. Most fascinating to me is the large painting The Vivian Girls at Windmills of 1986. This is a response to the reclusive Chicago ‘outsider’ artist Henry Darger and his monumental 15,000 page fantasy novel, with 300 painted illustrations (all of which were rescued from a skip), In the Realms of the Unreal.
This exhibition is sometimes an uncomfortable watch, but one is drawn in by the compelling vision of a single-minded artist of great conviction and integrity.
© Graham Buchan 2021.