All art is perforce autobiography, and every picture tells a story. How could it be otherwise? No outstanding artist almost literally makes visual these underlying possibilities more than Paula Rego.
A deep profound individualisation of turbulent personal emotion, expressed in fanciful scenes.
Rego was born in Portugal in 1935, educated in England, and studied at the Slade. She met and eventually married the much older artist, Victor Willing, for whom in his difficult last decade with MS she cared for: she memorialised the complex situation and the swirling currents of emotions it evoked, in paint. She is a woman whose life has been poised between the circumstances of the macho conservative and Catholic familial culture in the Iberian peninsula, and the increasingly liberal and even libertarian culture of the north, in the multi cosmopolitan London.
The current exhibition at the newly renovated MK Gallery in Milton Keynes is a retrospective, about a hundred paintings drawings and prints dating from the 1960s to the present.
The amalgam of her Anglo Portuguese life, its contrasts and contradictions, is part of the richness of her life and above all her art. She has been a fervent critic of the human penalties imposed by the backward dictatorial culture of Portugal. On view are her cogent and striking, visceral and fervent series of paintings and prints of single women of various ages in physical difficulty portrayed on a large and compelling scale on abortion, beginning with a triptych of 1998. The series is created in her unusual and accomplished technique of oil pastel on paper mounted on aluminium; the pastel makes for a rippling very gently dappled effect which is beguiling, perhaps the more to disarm us. Abortion law reform failed in Portugal in the late 1990s but was finally passed in 2007, and Rego’s memorable imagery is widely known. The paintings are hard-hitting because they are about individuals; they are not polemical but portray women in pain, in distress not of their choosing, with unseen societal forces placing them in these life-changing situations.
A vibrant use of colour, an experimental use of conventional materials – the pastel for example, on a huge scale – are part of her armoury. Her early experiments in semi-abstraction to which the first gallery of this handsomely designed and installed retrospective is given over show a cogent sense of the importance of constructive composition: what appears a whirlwind of objects both solid and confetti-like, is bullied into coherence, held by an invisible web.
Above all, the dominant characteristic of her art is her subject matter. A Rego is instantly recognisable, a deep profound individualisation of turbulent personal emotion, expressed in fanciful scenes. In her later work, as seen here, she has started to work from models and props set up in her studio, usually women, of sturdy build and stern expression, although the spectator can easily feel that an explosion of feeling expressed verbally or physically cannot be far away. As in the famous aphorism from Paul Klee, “Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible.”
There is lots of role-playing in Rego. Each series can be analysed and discussed in terms of the stories Rego heard and read as a child, her fascination with Disney, her understanding of the novels of Eça de Queirós, the 19th century Portuguese Balzac, although virtually unknown internationally but as famous there as Dickens here, not to mention the classic fairy tales, and inspiration from such diverse sources as Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman, stories the playwright sent her, and specific paintings by Hogarth and Murillo. All is transmuted by her absorption in issues between men and women, with families, and friends, and also as with abortion, those directly affecting women’s bodies. There is a series of horrific group scenes of female genital mutilation, in drawings and prints that eschew colour. They sear the eye and mind: and here it is women inflicting the mutilation on girls. While violence against women is explored, there is many a group portrait, especially of women, in interiors, on a beach, where the relationships are ambivalent. It is left to us to make up the stories.
What is a surprising unifying factor is the robust nature of Rego’s women; they are large, big boned, with prominent hands and muscled legs and bony knees. Ages are often indeterminate, and the women are impressive, unsmiling, strong, often sat awkwardly, the opposite of any natural grace; they are not ingratiating nor conventionally pretty. Rego’s stories, however specific any source might be, are open-ended; if they may sometimes make us uncomfortable, that is a gift. They make us see and feel more than we might imagine; her art is a revelation of an uneasy world that is all too familiar but with tantalisingly the possibility in her imaginative compositions of surprising visual conversations and even reconciliations. But for Rego, the personal is the political and the political the personal; we are individuals but also part of an intersecting web of connections with those around us and those beyond, in the wider world.
It is particularly beguiling and appropriate that this fascinating retrospective, from the mid-1960s to now, organised by theme and subject, should be the first monographic exhibition in the newly expanded Milton Keynes gallery in its own 20th year. Milton Keynes is a new town of grids and roundabouts, and massive trees, a working and successful 52-year-old experiment which is thriving and is among other things home to the Open University. This bland and demure architecture, oddly neutral in effect, is ringed round by some of England’s most beautiful countryside. The town, with its quiet formality, seems almost painfully safe. It is an attempt at deliberately creating humane conditions for living well. In contrast, Rego’s work is replete with overt tensions, distress, anxieties, the human condition at its most complex, contradictory and insoluble. The anthology, expertly chosen by the curator Catherine Lampert, is sizeable set out in the high-ceilinged sequence of spacious galleries which allow plenty of room for Rego’s work, claustrophobic and intense, to breathe.
Rego has been much feted in Portugal, bemedalled and now with a public gallery, The House of Stories, devoted to her work in Cascais which opened in 2009. In England, she was made a Dame in 2010. She is that marvellous and oddly, typically British anomaly, a member perforce whether she wishes it or not, of the great and the good, whilst also rightly being a trenchant and powerful observer, analyst, and creative critic of the status quo, both of society and of the interior emotional life of its inhabitants. She is a subversive artist, showing us things that perhaps we would sometimes prefer not to see, she is a dangerous and fearless artist – and a Royal Academician. She can speak from within and without.
Words: Marina Vaizey Photos: PC Robinson © Artlyst 2019
Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance MK Gallery, Milton Keynes until 22 September 2019 Adult £9.35 Visit Here
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