The mind of Paula Rego works as an alchemical still. She has the hability to absorb, distill and transmute essences of life and fable in which her literary readings reactivate hidden “reefs” of the subconscious.
She composes visual stories in which remnants of personal and collective history, dream and memory, intertwine in each other, forming dense plots that trap us, not so much by the narration itself as by the way of joining together.
Halfway through the exhibition halls of La Virreina, in her solo show Family Lexicon we find a triptych, The Pillow Man (2003), before which we are invited to sit, a pause on the way, perhaps, to point out the importance of this work as a turning point in the creative process of the artist.
The triptych is accompanied by an excerpt from Paula Rego’s conversation with Marco Livingstone in which she describes how the scenes, the characters and the atrezzo were conceived… It all began at the National Theater in London, watching The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh ,an astounding story in which storytelling transcends fiction, where extreme violence and deep compassion converge without any political correctness.
The deep-seated fear that takes root in childhood, the redemptive power of tales, family dysfunction as a breeding ground for psychosis and insanity… Rego’s fascination with McDonagh’s work is not surprising, being for her the grandmother’s house where she grew up (lulled to sleep by Portuguese tales) a cherished source that has been providing her imagination, and still today, octogenarian, continues to influence her poetical visions. Tales without fairies or evil stepmothers, only ordinary people, atrocious and wonderful at the same time, as in life itself.
In this triptych, the pillow man ends up mimetizing himself with the artist’s father, unconsciously and unpredictably, explains Rego, not in its terrifying condition but because of its soft and warm aspect. The central scene takes place on the beach where she spent several summers with her family, combining the local picturesque with the pathos of the storyline. In the distance, we glimpse the girl who believed she was Jesus dragging her cross, and in the foreground little Paula, leaning on her father-pillow.
This was the first time she introduced non-human characters, a doll-cushion that she made herself. Then her workshop would be filled with cloth and plaster creatures, who would be involved in future narratives.
Both in revisions of the classic stories and in her tragicomic appropriations of Eça de Queirós or Charlotte Brontë literary characters, delves into the psyche to analyze family entanglements, coercive patterns, the blurred boundaries between love and repression, hypocrisy and lies that lead to crime and self-destruction.
Visual legends are developed in the form of concise frames that owe both to the cinema and to Velazquez’s mirror games or to the satiric paintings of William Hogarth. In vignettes we see a werewolf seducing Little Red Riding Hood, of who the mother ends up avenging herself to save the honor of her daughter, and perhaps, by the way, to suffocate her jealousy. With his fur she makes a stole, which wears with elegance in the final frame.
So are the women of Rego, quick-tempered ones. In her wink to Hogarth and his marriage a la mode transcends the soap opera plot to focus on the temperaments, especially in the personality of the woman, whose husband ends up huddled (or dead) on her lap.
This figure of contemporary pietá is repeated as archetype of strong femininity in the work of Rego, but the strength also is manifested in the witches wisdom, in the raven’s oracular vision or in the woman-dog’s bestiality.
Rego has flirted with a variety of languages: art brut in its beginnings, Goyaesque etchings…, and over the last decades (when she discovered the pastel as the technique that best allows her to express in a visceral way) closer to a raw but magical realism. But in all cases there is an essential quest, to point out the resilience to (social, political, domestic…) oppression, especially of women and children.
Although nobody is innocent. The Vivian Girls who escaped from Henry Darger’s scenes to sow fear in Africa (Vivian Girls in Tunisia, 80’s), or the mothers who encourage the genital mutilation of their daughters (see ablation series), the social monster infiltrates in the interior of each.
Even when portraying the victims of patriarchy and their reactionary laws, as is the case of women who are forced to abort clandestinely in unhealthy conditions, she shows them vulnerable but courageous. We see them when they have just aborted or are willing to do so, disengaged by their pain but defiant; some of them are looking to us with resentment, because there is no difference between apathy and complicity with the status quo: Rego conceived this series after failure (due to a high level of abstention) of the 1998 referendum in Portugal to decriminalize the termination of pregnancy.
Almost at the end of the exhibition, we find an altarpiece (Oratorio, 2009) whose scenes don’t tells the life of any saint but, broadly, the story of a rape, childbirth under the moonlight and the sacrifice of the son. In the center, a sculptural group completes the picture of orphanhood and death.
Rego has fascinated both the most prominent collectors (Charles Saatchi has her work in her favorite pantheon), as well as lovers of the XX Century’s London School or the Hispanic tenebrism.
Because she stirs up our emotions without the need to provoke with a breakthrough language, without leaving the tradition of painting, and being incisive in a silent way that collides with the effectiveness that supports much of the art that calls itself transgressive.
Paula Rego, “Léxico familiar”
can be seen in La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona
Curator: Valentin Roma
until 8th October 2017