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Beautiful grotesque: the “dark play” of Paula Rego

Rego’s latest fairy-tale visions give terror a face – but their deepest secrets remain hidden from view.

Storm of swords: Rego’s unsettling pastel drawing Our Lady of Sorrows (2013). Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art. Photography by Prudence Cumming Associates

 

Paula Rego: the Last King of Portugal
Marlborough Fine Art, London W1

Not all artists are good at explaining their work but Paula Rego knows just what her pictures are about: they deal, she says, with “the beautiful grotesque”. It is a neat encapsulation of psychologically complex works that illustrate nursery rhymes, fairy tales and the folk stories of her native Portugal, that show women as dogs or sexual avengers and that reimagine classic novels such as Jane Eyre and The Metamorphosis.

Rego’s pictures (predominantly in pastels; she abandoned painting in the mid-1990s) contain real people and an assortment of mannequins – strange creatures made from pillows, stuffed tights and old clothes – as well as plaster saints, plastic Virgins and toy animals dressed like dolls. This cast of artist’s extras lives in her studio and, along with a couple of favourite models, is pressed into service again and again to people her pictorial stories. The results are indeed beautiful but they are never less than strange and frequently deeply sinister.

Her mises en scène are sealed and the viewer is never invited to step beyond the picture plane. Whatever dark play unfolds in them – and it is rarely clear exactly what that might be – is between her mute figures alone. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Rego is afraid of the dark. “Fear is something you have all the time,” she has said, and her work is meant to “give terror a face”. In this, she conjures up her Iberian predecessor Goya and especially his Caprichos prints.

The latest emanations of Rego’s unsettling imagination are three new sets of pictures on show at the Marlborough Fine Art gallery in London. The first series illustrates the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queiroz’s 1887 comic novel The Relic, in which a priapic nephew comes a cropper in attempting to inherit his devout aunt’s fortune. The second, The Last King of Portugal, shows scenes from the life of Manuel II who, with the republican coup of 1910, left his country for exile in England. The last, Stone Soup, is a set of pen-and-watercolour drawings that illustrate a folk tale in which a starving girl tricks hard-hearted villagers into giving her fresh ingredients to supplement the rock she is boiling for broth.

In The Relic, the nephew Teodorico travels to Alexandria to bring back the crown of thorns to give to his pious aunt. Unwittingly he gives her instead the negligee worn by a prostitute he has fallen in love with while away and is promptly disinherited. Rego’s version is a reimagination: she shows Teodorico meeting the prostitute Adelia, a large woman with an uncanny resemblance to a lounging Queen Victoria, and resting his head tenderly on her plump arm. When he reaches the Holy Land, it is a place of angels with hooped earrings, a tall man in a burnous and a distended dead donkey with a human phallus – a reflection, perhaps, of his libido. When he gives his aunt the wrong gift, the setting is a spaghetti-western-style emptiness in which the disgraced nephew, clutching his lover’s negligee to his chest in an echo of Adam’s shame at his nakedness in Genesis, has no place to hide. The most striking work of all is Our Lady of Sorrows: the Virgin sits in an armchair, pierced by swords and holding a mannequin figure in her lap that should, traditionally, be Jesus but who here has Cabbage Patch Kids features.

The same subversion is at work with the historical reality of Manuel II. The adult king is cradled on his mother’s lap as he suckles her breasts. He flees Portugal dressed as a peasant and rowing a rubber dinghy away from the cliffs of Ericeira, where Rego spent her childhood. At his marriage, the bishop wears a beaked mask and the bridesmaids are a selection of malign sprites. While you may be denied the key to unlock this phantasmagoria, the pictures are all the more engrossing for that. The viewer, like a child playing with dolls, can’t help but make up innumerable tales of one’s own to make sense of what is going on.

What the potency of Rego’s subject matter tends to obscure is her craft. The surfaces of the pictures are as rich and complex as the scenes. She uses pastel in both light scourings and patches of heavy impasto, tightening and loosening with pressure and overlays of colour. She nods to painting’s past, too: a ghostly Velázquez from Las Meninas stands behind Manuel and his mother, while the king’s deathbed scene, with its mirrors, heavy curtains and fascinated maid, is part Rokeby Venus and part Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes.

These pictures do not make comfortable viewing. But like all proper art, while they may evade understanding, they exert a pull that makes you look over and over again. 

Until 25 October

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage