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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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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