I was away from London for most of the first part of 2021, and it took time for the Londn art scene to offer up its goodies. But there was one genuinely outstanding show this year of a major ‘name’ artist. Portuguese-born British artist Paula Rego, at Tate Britain.
Paula Rego was born in 1935 to a well off family in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, the country was under fascist rule, the Estado Novo (New State), which lasted until 1974. Rego’s family were fiercely anti-fascist and sent their daughter to school in England. Rego went on to study painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, London where she met and married fellow painter Victor Willing.
Inspired by her own personal experiences, Rego’s pictures often address the abuse of power. Her early work often parodied the grotesque nature of the Portuguese dictatorship and its colonial occupations:
in the 1980s, Rego’s paintings began to centre upon fiercely independent, rebellious girls. Rego depicts them challenging oppressive social norms and expressing female sexual desire. The characters also represent the artist’s inner world, reflecting her interest and engagement with, psychotherapy. Rego explained, ‘it was very important to go to the origin, the imaginative origin that provides the images of what we have inside us, without us knowing what it is’.
The Dance (1988) is possibly the real centrepiece of the show. At a slightly mysterious moonlight party, held outdoors on a cliff face overlooking the sea, two couples dance, a trio of women – one. small child – dance together and another woman dances alone. Most of the dance seem to be preoccupied, with the dance or their thoughts. The man at the centre glances sideways, almost slyly. The woman at the left, who appears larger than the rest, stares right out of the canvas at the viewer. It is apIning that holds within it many potential narratives, from a retelling of an old fairy take to a modern romantic comedy – or tragedy. Rego allows the viewer to indulge their imaginations in the ambiguous story.
I saw Rego’s fabulous Nursery Rhymes prints from 1989 in Cascias, Portugal, in 2019 when I visited Rego’s own museum the House of Stories. Eerie, witty, quite dark and utterly mesmerizing, they reawakened my love for those strange old nursery rhymes. I realised that my love for the bizarre started early, and that 4 year old me would have loved these prints as much as I do today.
Some of my favourite pictures from the exhibition:
Rego is undoubtedly the greatest figurative painter working today, and Britain’s greatest living artist. The documentary about her, Paula Rego, Secrets & Stories, by her son Nick Willing, is fascinating and tender, giving insight into this remarkable artist’s vision, craft and fierce tenacity.
The Tate’s Paula Rego exhibition (7 JULY – 24 OCTOBER 2021) was the UK’s largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Rego’s work to date. The show was organised by Tate Britain in collaboration with Kunstmuseum Den Haag and Museo Picasso Málaga
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