There is a paradox at the heart of Paula Rego’s art: she is a narrative artist whose every painting tells a story, but it is almost never clear what those stories might be. Her pictures are peopled with figures – human, animal, imaginary – involved in actions that have meaning to them; they can be as seemingly mundane but as sexually charged as a girl absorbed in polishing a pair of leather boots, or as unsettling as another girl (or possibly the same one) holding a ribbon as if it were a garrotte and menacing something or someone just off the canvas edge. Elsewhere, a crouching woman with crazed eyes howls like a dog, a girl plucks a white goose between her legs, the characters from Snow White dance and cavort in a sinister procession, and a mannequin with a monstrous pillow head falls asleep on a young woman’s lap.
These are careful mise-en-scènes – in many cases composed in Rego’s studio using creepy life-size puppet figures she has made herself, with toys and still-life items ranging from cabbages to fish – so they invite decoding. Except that they never coalesce into straightforward tales and remain resistant to simplifying. Rego, a long-term advocate of Jungian analysis, seems unsure herself of exactly what she’s about, stressing instead the importance of going “to the origin, the imaginative origin that provides the images of what we have inside us, without us knowing what it is”. It is this irreconcilability – the tension between clarity and mystery – that gives her work its extraordinary power.
The major retrospective of her work at Tate Britain confirms Rego as one of the most significant painters at work today – not that confirmation was needed. The effect of the 100 or more pictures and prints on display is visceral and haunting – each and every one is subtly disturbing without it being clear quite why. It is hard to think of a recent exhibition that is both so enthralling and sends you scuttling away with a sense of something malign on your shoulder.
The themes of Rego’s pictures can be traced largely to her gender and the country of her birth. She was born in Portugal in 1935 under the Estado Novo regime of the dictator António Salazar, where violence and repression were commonplace and the role of women restricted and traditional. By the time Rego’s father, a committed anti-fascist, sent her to boarding school in England at 16, she was already well versed in the realities of a patriarchal society and denuded female existences.
[See also: Joaquin Mir’s colourful Spanish landscapes]
It was at the Slade School of Fine Art that she learned how to express her political and personal feelings, initially in semi-abstract paintings and the collages that are one of the surprises of the exhibition, and later, in the 1980s, through paintings of her cast of creatures. It was also at the Slade that she met her husband, the painter Victor Willing. His diagnosis with multiple sclerosis in 1966, when Rego was just 31, added another bundle of complexities to her work – to her own role as lover, wife and mother was added another female archetype, that of carer. Not that this is overt; her pictures, she says, are to do “with the hand and the gut: how you feel and some sort of sexuality. It’s very internalised.”
One of the most poignant works in the show is The Dance, painted in 1988, the year Willing died. It shows Rego and a dashing young Willing twice: in one episode they are dancing together; in another she sways alone as he twirls with a blonde woman. In the background a grandmother, a young woman and a child form a circle, and the scene is set against a castle on a promontory and lit by the moon. The groupings occupy the same space but are separate from one another. The picture refers to the cycle of life, the ages of man, ring-a-ring-o-roses, the longevity and brevity of love, solitude and togetherness, while simultaneously nodding to Poussin and Goya, painterly opposites.
Indeed, Goya, and especially the dark sensibility evident in his Caprichos – the print series he made in 1797-98 illustrating folklore and popular superstitions and sayings, but with the meaning of some of the images too personal to be decipherable – can be felt in the background of many of Rego’s pictures.
[See also: Maria Sibylla Merian’s insect paintings]
What is striking throughout the exhibition, however, is how much her own she makes her references: for example, her large pictures of single female figures (made in pastels, a medium she prefers to paint since it is “fiercer, much more aggressive”) show women after undergoing an abortion, others in the grip of primal emotions, or in scenes inspired by 19th-century photographs of women suffering from “hysteria”. In them she manages to invoke and meld the saints and penitents of Spanish Golden Age painters, the rococo courtesans of François Boucher, Watteau’s vulnerable portrait of Pierrot, Goya’s majas and Manet’s Spanish figures. For all that, not one of her pictures is in the slightest bit derivative.
Rego has been exhibiting work for more than 65 years and is too well known for this show to be called revelatory. But what it does make irrefutably clear is that the duo so regularly lauded for taking modern British figure painting in new and deeply personal directions, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, should be a trio.
Rego’s paintings cannot be easy things to live with, but however unnerving they may be, they grip the mind and imagination and keep you coming back for another look – and that surely is one of the things that separates real artists from the chaff. Rego said recently that “making a painting can reveal things you keep secret from yourself”, but her work’s potency lies in the way it stirs the secrets inside the viewer too.
“Paula Rego” runs until 24 October
Tate Britain, London SW1
[See also: The suburban utopias of Spencer Gore]
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook