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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

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism