Paula Rego’s Heroic 1989 Exhibition of History Paintings – ARTnews.com
A retrospective of Paula Rego’s paintings was held at the Fundacião Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, and the Casa de Serralves, Porto, before coming to the Serpentine Gallery, London, where a considerable number of new paintings were added. The exhibition revealed Rego to be a far more substantial artist than had previously been realized. Born in Portugal in 1935, Rego trained at the Slade School in London and married Victor Willing, a fellow student. Having for many years divided her time between England and Portugal, she now lives in London.
The spacious rooms of the Serpentine Gallery provoked Rego to work on a much larger and more declamatory scale than usual, making public statements rather than domestic observations in a series of new pictures that have the poise and solemnity of history paintings. But instead of commemorating events normally deemed of national or global significance-a military victory or the signing of a treaty, for instance-they portray “heroic handmaidens,” the daughters and sisters of the heroic men who are conventionally the subject of such paintings. Shown behind the scenes, Rego’s new heroines perform domestic duties or personal services for their menfolk.
The policeman’s daughter, for instance, polishes her father’s jackboot in a 1987 painting by the same name. Clad in a white dress and sandals, she sits in a sparsely furnished, harshly lit and comfortless room. A cat watches nervously through the window for someone’s approach, a reminder of the authority to which the pair are subject. One of the girl’s arms is thrust deep inside the policeman’s boot in an ambivalent gesture that mingles compliance with aggression. Her other hand vigorously polishes the instep, a gesture indicative of the father’s domestic and sexual supremacy as well as of his superior social status. The act of polishing the leather suggests, on a more metaphoric level, her role as masseuse of the patriarchal ego. The young woman’s cheerless seclusion, meanwhile, stresses her exclusion from the public arena in which her father’s power is exercised and celebrated.
The stockily built and knowing young woman in The Soldier’s Daughter (1987) is described by Rego as an all-purpose barracksroom servant, expected to provide sexual as well as domestic services.’ She sits alone in a bare courtyard, fingers plunged into the down of a plump white goose that lies between her legs in a suggestive arc. When compared with the diminutive figure of a toy soldier which stands near her foot, the girl’s muscular limbs, strong grasp and firmly planted feet indicate considerable physical strength and force of character. Her toughness and stoicism proclaim her refusal to surrender even in the most taxing or demeaning of circumstances.
It is difficult to estimate the age of Rego’s heroines. Details of their appearance-such as braids, socks, pumps and simple dresses-suggest early adolescence, but their hardened features and the stolid set of their bodies implies greater maturity. The girls seem larger than life, and their heroic scale is lent further emphasis by the drama of their presentation. The harsh lighting, strong shadows and exaggerated recession of the simple, architectonic elements that frame their isolation are suggestive of a stage set-a paradoxical note of grandeur that creates an operatic sense of momentousness. The emphatic gravity of the pictures, accentuated by the archaic realism with which they have been painted, confers upon these figures a symbolic status. They become an ironic testimony to women’s complicit support-however unwilling-of a system that minimizes their contributions in most fields, including the visual arts. By usurping a “masculine” genre-history painting-and harnessing its pomposity and self-regard to rewrite history from a female point of view, Rego not only pays tribute to other women, but highlights her impudent act of trespass and the revitalization of the moribund genre which it achieves.
Rego’s paintings of the past two years differ dramatically in scale, mood and ambition from the tales of childhood anarchy that preceded them. The earlier, brightly colored acrylics had gained an enthusiastic following, yet the work was never accorded rthe status it deserved. The subject matter was serious-relationships between men and women, especially power struggles within ,the home. But the use of animals as surrogate people, and the simplified drawing, strong black outlines, clear colors and uniform grounds, suggested antecedents in the nursery rather than the museum. They suggested storybook illustration, caricature, political satire-all admitted sources of inspiration to the artist-rather than painting proper. “I wanted to make art like popular illustration and folk tales. It was what I knew better-Mexican broadsheets and popular woodcuts, illustrations from the catechism and artists like Beatrix Potter, Arthur Rackham and Benjamin Rabier, who drew the advertisement ‘La vache qui rit’ and the adventures of a dog and goose ca!Fed Gedeon and Placide. They’re more down to earth and less earnest. I didn’t know how to attempt ‘big things,’ to make art like Rembrandt.”
Characters in Rego’s paintings of ’81 and ’82 include the Red Monkey, seen beating his adulterous wife when he suspects the babyCharacters in Rego’s paintings of ’81 and ’82 include the Red Monkey, seen beating his adulterous wife when he suspects the baby is not his. She retaliates in another picture by cutting off hi tail, and, in a third, he has been reduced to a rubbery doll whose fate rests in the hands of an uncouth boy. Rego recalls an incident from her childhood-chopping off the fingers of a doll that seemed too lifelike-and one fears for the monkey’s future.
Absurdist humor-the wife’s lover is a polar bear in sunglasses mingles with the element of cruelty to eliminate sentimentality. As in traditional fairy tales, hierarchies are overturned, power bases shaken and social injustices redressed. The jealous husband is vanquished, the wife and lover are victorious and patriarchal claims are thwarted. A recurrent motif is the transgression of moral and social codes. In Pregnant Rabbit Telling Her Parents (1982), a brown bunny reveals her distended belly to a pompous, cigar-smoking dog of a father and a subdued pussycat of a mother. The outcome of her misdemeanor is less important than the act of insubordination itself-a litmus paper to hypocrisy-and the dilemma that it poses the parents. Rebellion and confrontation are the deeper subjects of the painting. Most important to the success of the works of this period is an acute eye for gesture and posture that enables Rego to make plausible the interactions between humans and animals. Instead of being merely anecdotal, the narratives function as moral tales.
The characters in these paintings are neither tragic nor heroic–they are not important enough. Nor do they confront moral dilemmas, because they are unable to determine their own fates. Entangled within the web of social relations, their actions are circumscribed by their subordinate status. And not having attained the dignity of free will, they are preoccupied with minor transgressions. The pictures, in other words, portray the worlds of children and the disenfranchised. “It’s nothing to do with good and evil at the roots-anything like Faust,” Rego observes. “It’s to do with half things-cheating, lying, the half-sins, the mediocre ones …. I suppose it’s to do with how people behave rather than philosophical questions.”
In 1984 there followed a group of paintings inspired by the Vivian Girls, heroines of The Realms of the Unreal, a fantastic narrative, in 13 volumes, written and illustrated by Henry Darger, an outsider artist and janitor in a Chicago hospital.2 “Darger’s girls,” explains Rego, “lived on another planet ruled by very wicked soldiers, and they were always in bondage, but thanks to their cunning pranks they were always getting the better of their captors.” Darger’s stories offered Rego a delightful-and effective-metaphor of oppression defied and overcome. With the help of numerous animal and vegetable accomplices, the girls in this series create joyous, multicolored mayhem-breaking crockery, indulging in unruly picnics by the sea, dancing in spirited abandon, exploring their sexuality and generally testing their limits and capabilities.
The following year, however, the mood of the work substantially altered. A series of paintings, titled “Girl and Dog,” features a pubescent girl ministering to the needs of a male pet that is clearly a surrogate human. She pets, feeds and shaves him and administers his medicine. He succumbs with abject gratitude-begging, fawning, baring his throat to her blade. The flat ground of the earlier acrylics and the ambiguous spaces of the Vivian Girls series give way to convincing nursery interiors. The figures are modeled with a new solidity which suggests they are based on observed reality rather than on fantasy or fiction, an impression confirmed by the detailed descriptions of faces, hair and clothing-the girls have thick braids and wear patterned dresses or pinafores.
These sturdy peasant types are, in fact, based on servants. in Rego’s childhood home-plus, more recently, a woman who helped the artist look after her husband during his terminal illness. A few years earlier Victor Willing had contracted multiple sclerosis, and these paintings are a moving testimony to his increasing dependence. Here, the dog is Willing’s stand-in-an inspired act of displacement that allowed Rego enough distance to explore painful subjects, such as the unusual power relations engendered by his helplessness and the paradoxes that permeate a relationship of such inequality, while avoiding excessive pathos. A fearful poignancy is, nevertheless, lent to the work by the knowledge that it reflects on personal tragedy, and that its gentle irony and wry humor are enlisted as weapons to alleviate pain and obviate despair.
Ambiguity permeates the next group of “Girl and Dog” pictures, which date from 1986-87. Now the girls gather in conspiratorial clusters. Attention is lavished on the animal, but concern is inflected with darker emotions of cruelty or ambivalence, symbolically indicated by the introduction of props, mainly children’s toys. In Two Girls and a Dog (1987), the furtive presence of a watching jackal implies treachery, while the hammer placed beside a clay pitcher implies aggression. A mood of sado-masochistic sensuality pervades scenes such as Girl Lifting Up Her Skirts to a Dog (1986), in which an aggressive, smirking girl taunts a melancholy-seeming hound.
This sexually charged air of adolescent intrigue evokes Balthus but Rego’s girls are willful protagonists, not projections of masculine fantasy. Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland are another obvious influence, but whereas Alice is subject to unknown and irrational laws, the girls in Rego’s paintings set the codes of conduct in their nursery kingdom.
In several subsequent large paintings, Rego portrays her situation more openly, leaving the surrogates behind. The Family (1988) is the most evidently autobiographical of these works. A woman and child undress a helpless man propped up stiffly on a bed, expressions of fierce concentration on their faces. “They are rubbing themselves against him,” remarks Rego, “in an attempt to revive him-they will do anything to revive him. But they are stoic rather than wise, whereas the girl standing in the window (whose tightly clasped hands indicate the intensity of her focus on the scene) is miraculous. Vic suggested that I should call it The Miracle, but that would have been too optimistic.”
Behind the group is a shrine, of the kind common in Portugal, which shows St. Michael doing battle with the Devil beneath a repentant Mary Magdalen. Rego identifies with the sinner. “I have a lot of guilt,” she explains. One is reminded of an earlier picture that shows a gaudily painted woman abandoning her hyena of a husband to gaze abjectly into the night. A ridiculous parrot acts as the voice of conscience: “You can’t go out,” mimics Rego, “you must look after your husband.”
While working in this autobiographical mode, Rego was simultaneously engaged in the “Heroic Handmaiden” series. If most of these paintings deal symbolically with the overriding power of men in our society, others reverse conventional gender relationships, pointing up the strength of the female. In The Cadet and His Sister (1988), a young woman stoops to tie the shoelace of her younger brother. Though she might seem to be performing an obsequious act, her marked strength and maturity, the resoluteness of her actions and the sensuality of her red clothes contrast sharply with her brother’s tentative and awkward posture and his obvious weakness and passivity. Rego has remarked that the ceramic cockerel standing near the boy indicates impotence, and numerous clues suggest that all is not well with the raw recruit. The awkward angle of his head, and his outstretched fingers, used to steady himself as he perches clumsily on a garden bench, hint at mental or physical incapacity.
Departure (1988) is the last picture in the “Heroic Handmaiden” series. Painted shortly before Victor Willing’s death, it acknowledges defeat yet does not dwell on failure. A girl in a pinafore affectionately combs the young man’s hair. He is formally dressed in readiness for his departure, and his trunk is packed for the journey “to which,” the artist says, “he is quite resigned, although she is still sad.” The scene is set on a balcony beside the sea; a cliff towers behind the couple. Painted in the browns and greens of camouflage fatigues, its cardboard absurdity seems to mock the vainglory of worldly achievement that history paintings traditionally celebrate, but which has become irrelevant to this young cadet.
Paula Rego’s recent paintings can best be described as symbolic narrative fictions, based on fact. Their large scale and sparse theatrical intensity achieve emotional distance and avoid anecdote. But the strength of the work arises, above all, from an astonishing frankness about her feelings and responses in a situation of great stress, sadness and personal tragedy. Hers is a remarkable achievement that, wrote Victor Willing, “produces a note of hilarious triumph [which] defies the pain.”3
1. Comments throughout by Paula Rego were either made in conversation with the author, or are taken from an interview with John McEwen published in Paula Rego, London, Serpentine Trust, 1988, the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition. (Additional essays are by Victor Willing and Ruth Rosengarten; the Portuguese version of the catalogue also includes an essay by Bernardo Pinto de Almeida.)
2. For further discussion of Henry Darger’s work, see Michael Bonesteel, “Chicago Originals,” Art in America, Feb. 1985, pp. 128–35.
3. Victor Willing, “Inevitable Prohibitions,” Paula Rego, p. 8.
This article originally appeared in the June 1989 issue, pp. 158–162, 205.