Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden

Room 46, The National Gallery, 20 Jul 2023 – 29 Oct 2023.  Free


Two years ago Tate Britain mounted a major retrospective of Paula Rego’s work and it was a great exhibition.  Born in Portugal but living and working in the UK since her late teens, Rego proved to be a formidable depicter of women’s position in society, combining figuration, surrealism and humour in, at times, savage representations of female oppression.  Last June, in her late eighties, she died.

Now the National Gallery shows a single piece of Rego’s work, albeit a big one: Crivelli’s Garden is nearly ten metres wide and two metres high.  It has the appearance of a mural – indeed it served that purpose for thirty years in the Sainsbury Wing’s dining room – but it is in fact made from separately painted canvasses.

Paula Rego’s Crivelli’s Garden stretches along nearly ten metres.

Rego’s inspiration for the work comes from the 15th Century: an altar piece made by Carlo Crivelli for the church of St.  Francesco in the Italian town of Matelica.  It is displayed for our benefit on the opposite wall.  In fact it is the bottom horizontal panel, the Predella, which inspired Rego’s piece.

Carlo Crivelli, Predella of La Madonna della Rondine (The Madonna of the Swallow) 
after 1490 © The National Gallery, London

Rego’s huge painting, made during 1990 and 1991, in many respects is a response to her uncomfortable feeling that the National Gallery (in fact all galleries at the time) was stuffed full of art made by elderly white males.  She responds by filling her work with significant women: saintly and un-saintly characters from the Old and New Testaments, and women from her own family and those she knew and liked on the gallery’s staff at the time.  Thus, amongst a huge cast, we have Judith depositing what might be Holofernes’ head into a bag held by her maid, Saint Catherine avenging herself on the Roman Emperor who had ordered her torture, Delilah crouching over Samson, the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in conspiratorial whispers, Mary of Egypt with her huge growth of hair covering her nakedness, and the sisters Martha and Mary – Martha leaning on a broom to do the housework with an expression of wry admonishment as Mary sits next to her, dreamily waiting on the wisdom of Christ.  As one’s eye roams slowly over the different scenes half-forgotten bible stories suddenly come into focus.  And of course, as one would expect if one knows Rego’s other work, amongst all the ladies there is a good menagerie of animals: a lion, a pussycat, an owl, even a frog on a lead.

Detail: Paula Rego, Crivelli’s Garden III, 1990?1.  The National Gallery, London.  Presented by English Estates, 1991

What is wonderful about the piece as a whole is Rego’s ability to combine different perspectives, different scales, and to move effortlessly from sections of monochrome to sections of colour.  The women are invariable depicted in browns, blacks and whites.  The foreground and background walls are shown as the blue and white tiles so characteristic of Portugal.  And the room itself lends support with these colours.  To complete the show a good number of Rego’s preparatory drawings and paintings are also displayed.

This is not a block-buster exhibition – I don’t expect there will be queues around the block.  But to spend time with a large, beautifully accomplished single work slowly revealing its secrets is an enormous pleasure.  I strongly suggest you give it your attention.

© Graham Buchan 2023.