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Dame Paula’s tour de force

John Evans on the major Rego retrospective at Tate Britain

08 July, 2021 — By John Evans

Paula Rego, Possession I, 2004, Collection Fundação de Serralves – Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto, Portugal. © Paula Rego

TO start at the end of the new Tate show, Paula Rego, it says “…is an artist who has consistently made work that responds to and fights injustice. In keeping with this lifelong concern, we end this retrospective exhibition with [a] group of powerful, harrowing works that serve as a provocation for action. Rego’s and our wish is that there might be an Escape, and more justice for all women.”

The works in that final room concern FGM female genital mutilation and trafficking, with titles including Stitched and Bound and Circumcision.

Remarkable in themselves, they are not out of the ordinary for the 86-year-old, for whom a Tate show is seen by many as ironic and highly symbolic in itself, given the institution’s history with women, but surely for all it is seen as overdue.

Whatever the forms and developing styles of the artist over time, and there are more than 100 works to be seen here, the titles often speak volumes.

In a section Fantasy & Rebellion, there are acrylics on paper from 1981 and 1982: Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove; Red Monkey Beats His Wife; and Wife Cuts off Red Monkey’s Tail.

And in a section, A Subversive Vision, from two decades earlier, there are oil paintings offering overt comment.

For example When we had a house in the country we’d throw marvellous parties and then we’d go out and shoot black people, 1961, and from the year before Salazar Vomiting the Homeland.

The former echoes the words of a Portuguese fascist, overheard in Lisbon at the time the colonial power was fighting liberation movements in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique; the latter refers to dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, prime minister from 1932 to 1968 and his “Estado Novo” regime which would only be brought to an end in 1974.

Paula Rego, Interrogation, 1950, private collection, London. © Paula Rego

Rego’s anti-fascist parents enrolled her in a school in Kent when she was 16 and she went on to study art at the Slade.

In 1962 the family bought a house in Camden and, splitting time between Portugal and Britain, Dame Paula settled in London from 1972.

She is still Camden-based with a studio in Kentish Town.

Early works in the show also include a portrait of the artist’s father and a vision of Under Milk Wood – in a Portuguese setting – which secured a prize for her at the Slade; but also a stark oil, Interrogation, a sexually charged examination of threat and torture painted at the age of just 15.

A darkness, even the grotesque, are often the defining features of how women are depicted, whatever the narrative or medium, with collages, drawings, etchings, or paintings.

Rego’s work is a tour de force whether in political comment, fantastic imaginative story-telling, or in the staged scenes that have been central to her later output.

And from about 1994, when Rego began her large pastels of single female figures, in the Dog Women series, there’s an exploration, as the Tate suggests, of “primal needs and emotions” in works that “…do not perform nor cater for the male gaze”.

Yet as the gamut is run through the emotions, rage, anguish, betrayal, desire, lust, loneliness and more, if the aim is not to deliver a message to all, what would be the point?

Paula Rego, The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987, private collection. © Paula Rego

As with Interrogation, this largest and most comprehensive UK retrospective for Rego, includes works never publicly shown here before. From a private collection there’s a diptych from 1996 of the Cast of Characters from Snow White, a first for Europe.

But of greater impact should be the whole room depicting the plight of women “diagnosed with hysteria” inspired by late 19th-century photographs titled Possession I-VII, here shown for the first time outside Portugal. They reference religious paintings of saints but also experience of depression and “the process of healing through therapy”.

Others, better known, are the acrylics The Little Murderess, The Policeman’s Daughter, and The Soldier’s Daughter, 1987, reunited for the first time since their outing at Rego’s important show at Serpentine Gallery more than 30 years ago.

Her series on abortion, which was used as part of a legalisation campaign in Portugal, is also included.

It’s a pity that the 11 pictures Rego produced in 2007 when trying to “draw her way out” of a bad bout of depression are not. They were exhibited in London in 2017.

On a lighter note, a fascinating aspect is to focus on the small, often incongruous, images to be found at the margins – a sewing machine, an inverted crab, pelican, bat, wild boar, and the dolls!

And, yes, there’s a perfectly respectable cup and saucer to be spotted in one work at least.

  • Paula Rego is at Tate Britain until October 24. Visit tate.org.uk or follow @Tate #PaulaRego

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