Rooted: Review of Paula Rego exhibition at Tate Britain

by Beatriz Rodrigues

Born in Lisbon in 1935, Paula Rego belongs as much to Portugal, whose people and culture she kept revisiting throughout her work, as to the UK, where she chose to spend most of her life. Rego arrived at London when she was sixteen years old, to pursue her artistic studies and to escape the authoritarian regime in Portugal. This distance, at once physical and cultural, allowed her to develop a keen sense of the injustices suffered by Portuguese women. Her experience of these two worlds, a liberal democracy and a conservative dictatorship, also gave her an insight into the cruel ambiguities which permeate human relationships everywhere. Despite her fierce critique of the ways in which traditional institutions repressed women, Rego never rejected tradition in its entirety. This would have left her rootless, alone with her private demons. Instead, she embraced these charged stories, engraved in the female body, and sought to tell them afresh.  

Paula Rego Dog Woman, 1994

That Rego succeeded in this bold attempt is testified by the crowds of people who gathered daily at Tate Britain to admire her work. The exhibition, which ran from 7th July to 24th October, surveyed sixty years of her career, from a painting done in her teens to the staged studio scenes in 2000s. This was the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever in Britain, just two years after the then-largest retrospective at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. Unfortunately, some of the featured series, such as ‘Girl and Dog’ (1986-7) and ‘Dog Woman’ (1994), were incomplete, restricting the appreciation of the entire series to isolated pieces. Other iconic works, such as the ‘Dancing Ostriches’ (1995), were absent too, although I did find paintings I’d never seen before, like the Possession pastels (2004). Also, despite the importance of the technique for Rego, only a handful of etchings were featured at Tate. In this regard, an even larger retrospective is due. Nonetheless, this exhibition stands as a fine tribute to Paula Rego, consolidating her well-deserved place in the history of art.

Throughout Rego’s work, the female body is charged with ambivalence – at once caring and menacing, maternal and erotic, untamed and submissive. In her earlier paintings, there is an unruly, overflowing energy, which prevents straightforward interpretation even when this would be appropriate. While working on Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960), which was meant to convey unequivocal abjection at the Portuguese dictator and his regime, Rego recalls that she suddenly started to feel sorry for Salazar. The passion and care she invested in her work shrouded her subjects, even when she treated them maliciously. In Wife Cuts off Red Monkey’s Tail (1981), the female figure holds a big pair of scissors in her hands, with a blank, timid expression in a partially obscured face, after having castrated the husband. This wasn’t simply an act of revenge after he had beaten her (Red Monkey Beats His Wife, 1981), it was a way, perhaps the only way she had, to sever the bond that attached her to him – like cutting a piece of herself to save the rest. In the ‘Girl and Dog’ series, the male figure, the dog, has been rendered docile, with its throat exposed to the threat or caress of the mistress’ hand. The same combination of menace and care, always with sexual innuendos, reappears in several works (for example, The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987,or The Family, 1988). Ironically, the male presence seems to be more strongly felt when it is absent, as a deep-rooted desire running through the woman’s body. Rego’s ‘Dog Women’ snarl fiercely to anyone who tries to tame them (Dog Woman), but they fall asleep over their master’s jacket, longing for his return (Sleeper). The mysterious interpenetration of power and love is a theme that pervades most of Rego’s work, extending from erotic desire to religious devotion.

Paula Rego, Salazar Vomiting the Homeland, 1960

One of the most curious aspects in the artist’s development is the progression from the chaotic, fragmentary collages of the 1960s to the boldly delineated, monumental female figures, drawn from life, which became so characteristic of her mature work. In early paintings, like Salazar Vomiting the Homeland, Rego would draw directly from imagination and then cut and rearrange the bodily shapes into jumbled, violent compositions. Soon, she learnt how to concentrate in precise gestures or expressions the visceral force which remained scattered in those first works. After realizing that she did not have to ‘mutilate’ her drawings, Rego deliberately made them rough and distorted, as in the ‘Red Monkey’ series. At the time, she also shunned the human figure, preferring to anthropomorphise animals instead. The child-like, cartoonish appearance of these characters allowed her to explore the painful dynamics of human interactions with a brutal honesty which she would maintain throughout her career. Later, in the ‘Girl and Dog’ series, an animal is still the object of maternal care and erotic play, but it is now overpowered by the girl. There is something menacing and perverse about the girl’s childish games, as if she is hiding a dark secret under her voluminous skirt. From the 1990s onwards, the women in Rego’s work are fully mature, even as they pose awkwardly in their underwear, like a teenage girl (Girdle, 1995). Their bodies are unapologetically strong, as solid as uncarved stone, though they are often drenched with desire, tenderness, and pain.

The increased presence of dolls in recent years is also meaningful.  Perhaps the best example is Pillowman (2004) – a huge, amorphous mass, with flabby, useless limbs and a vaguely human face. In the three-piece work, Pillowman always appears sprawled and inert, asleep under the vigilant gaze of women. Rego’s dolls, I suspect, are a token of old age. They invoke childhood, the memories of a distant past – in the case of Pillowman, of a father’s depression – to which we seem prone to return when we are old. The dolls can also reflect the increasing loss of control over our bodies, which become estranged and unresponsive. They are the remains of the shattered wholeness of Rego’s women after they age. They remind me of my grandmothers, the grandmothers of my friends and all the elderly woman in Portugal who grew up under the old regime – most of them raised in poverty, with no access to education, working since childhood, guarding their chastity dearly as if it was their only good until that was also spent, often unhappily, in marriage. As these women struggle with the decay of their bodies and minds, something curious occurs. After so many decades, past traumas resurface as fresh wounds, breaking their thickened skin. Rego had the opportunities these women did not have, and she kept returning to tell their stories, which, otherwise, would have gone unheard.

Paula Rego, Pillowman, 2004

Art, for Rego, is a way to say what is forbidden or couldn’t otherwise be said. Her art, in that sense, allows us to venture into territories we wouldn’t willingly go, out of fear of hurting ourselves or others. Her art provides access to deeper truths within us. That is why it can be so brutal and daring at times, but also so liberating. There is a joyful strength even in the hardest scenes. Rego has the extraordinary gift, informed by Jungian psychoanalysis, of transforming personal experiences into powerful expressions of primal needs and emotions. Even though the same woman, Lila Nunes, appears in so many of Rego’s works, playing so many different roles, she is never depersonalized, reduced to a symbol or an ideal. We recognize ourselves in her, not because we project ourselves onto her, but because she tells us something about us that we didn’t dare to say.

Both in terms of subject and style, Rego reveals a strong affinity with Hogarth and Goya. Like them, she is able to articulate in concrete visual scenes the profound desires and needs of her time. She also played a crucial role in the renewal of figurative painting in the second half of the twentieth century, along with Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. She treats her figures with greater humanity than either of them, though, without being any less candid and bold. Finally, Rego has made a tremendous contribution to the reinvention of the female body in art. Unlike artists such as Cindy Sherman, she never aims to shock. With Rego, violence is typically subtle and interspersed with playfulness. Even as victims (as opposed to being the perpetrators or accomplices in a wrongdoing), her women are sturdy and defiant. They refuse to be seen as objects. These aspects contribute all the more to the unsettling effect of Rego’s images, without running the risk of numbing the viewer. All things considered, her work is as enlivening as disturbing, gulping from that inexhaustible source of contradictions which is life.

Beatriz de Almeida Rodrigues is a PhD student in Philosophy at King’s College London. Her research project is focused on the concept of the grotesque in modern aesthetics. She is an avid reader and occasional poet, with several poems published in Portuguese. In contemporary masterpieces of literature, cinema, and the visual arts, such as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, she finds profound insights into human experience.