Friday, 30 December 2011

Paula Rego

I shall be visiting the 'Casa das Historias' Gallery in Lisbon in April to see the work of Paula Rego and will write all about this while I am out there. However, prior to this...

(I ask that no one use any of this text without my consent)

Paula Rego’s work is an entanglement of both real and imagined stories and, like an allegorical collage, the characters and plots will change as she makes the work[1]. Her work from the 1980’s in particular, focuses more on the woman and the role the woman plays within the family and society. The narratives in her work almost always take place in a seemingly domestic and ordinary setting, giving the sinister layers which underlie her work even more of a sense of power and fear which, in turn, seems to ensure that the ‘the personal always becomes political’[2]. The fact that such ordinary settings can be the basis for such disturbing narratives, guarantee that the viewer connects with the piece on a very personal level thus making it seem even more powerful.

Rego ‘depicts mental outlooks more than people’[3]. When viewing Rego’s work, it invites one almost to inhabit the piece as the content resonates with elements in one’s own life. It is not something from which one can easily stand apart. One is also never entirely sure about the scene taking place since her finished works are not simple illustrations but instead something that must be interpreted and analysed- ‘the characters and events change and develop as she works’[4]. For example, in Rego’s painting ‘The Family’ which depicts a man being manhandled by his wife and daughter, it is uncertain whether they are deliberately and maliciously hurting him or simply trying to help him. If the wife and daughter are attacking him, the viewer is left unsure as to whether the man will be able to escape. The only clue may be held in the Portuguese tableaux featuring St. Joan, and St George slaying the dragon on the dresser behind the figures and in the fable of the stork and the fox illustrated beneath. Yet the viewer again remains unsure if the man’s outcome will mirror that of the slayed dragon, or the fox- who ate the stork once it had removed the bone stuck in his throat[5]. The static narrative given leaves the viewer in a state of uncertainty because ‘there is no end to a story, it unfolds all the time’[6].

The stories told in Rego’s work have never ended and continue to be analysed and adapted today. In an interview with the Guardian in 2002, Rego uses her husband as an example of the enduring nature that stories can have through art. She asserts “Vic’s story hasn’t ended, it goes on and on. He is always there in my pictures, his voice in my head -The stories will continue to at once be transformed by both themselves and us ‘in life and art”[7]. Although she never plans to produce more than one canvas, Rego often develops many of her initial pieces into a more complex series, often in the form of a triptych. Unlike the traditional narrative painters however, Rego does not strictly stick to the conventions of this form and her triptych work still remains inconsistent; a good example of work by Rego in this form are her pastel works of ‘The Pillowman’.

When discussing the artist Gwen John, the point was made by Alicia Foster that an individual’s letters and art can ‘be used and manipulated to fulfil certain needs and desires’ and that identities can be constructed ‘from a choice of different historical images and values’[8]. This is one of the very essences of Calle’s work as she invites and encourages the viewer to see, read and interpret her factual narratives- ‘she situates the work of art in a terrain that can be likened to film and literature’[9]. Calle manipulates her own art in order for it to be manipulated by us and promotes the idea that art and life itself can and should be, interpreted and re-interpreted. For works of art ‘being interpreted and re-interpreted is their destiny’[10].

Germaine Greer, spoke of ‘the effort to present a violent and subversive personal vision in acceptable decorative terms’, which would be an accurate analysis of the aims of Rego in her work. Rego makes no attempt to search for a rational explanation in the narratives in her work, nor does she take a character’s side. This aspect of her work itself is reflected in her own life. In 1953, 18 years old and a student at The Slade, she fell pregnant by a married Victor Willing who would later become her husband and with whom she would have three children. When she told him about the pregnancy, he abandoned her and went back to his wife for a further two years. Despite being abandoned by him however, in an interview with The Guardian in 2002, she states that “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with his behaviour. I think. Well, I don’t think to tell you the truth.”[11] She comments that she was “...always very obedient... I always did what I was told to. When he told me to take my knickers off, I did”. As she recounts this story one cannot help but feel she was the victim in the events, emotionally powerless to the more mature Victor Willing yet there is no suggestion of self-pity in her recounting of the time.

Rego does not simply use her own personal experiences in her work but rather draws from a collection of female experience, using literature, film and myth as her inspiration. This concoction of well known stories, fairy tales and the everyday allows a variety of women viewing her work to feel more personally engaged with it. Rego’s portrayal of women not only confronts the viewer visually but also emotionally. Rego conveys the darkness of everyday life, giving her paintings sexual undertones without ever having to show nudity or even openly erotic behaviour.

Rego’s 1994 series of pastels portraying ‘dog women’ show women seemingly behaving like dogs yet these women are not being depicted as downtrodden or suppressed. She says: “To be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden; that has very little to do with it...In these pictures every woman's a dog woman, not downtrodden, but powerful. To be bestial is good. It's physical. Eating, snarling, all activities to do with sensation are positive. To picture a woman as a dog is utterly believable." [12] As a woman, being ‘feminine’ is something which is very visual and so by showing a woman in such an unfeminine yet physical way, one could perceive that Rego is empowering women. One of the most intriguing elements of these pieces is the male presence which is so strongly felt yet not seen- for surely a dog must have a master. There is the suggestion of unused potential in all of these women, perhaps challenging therefore the women viewing these pieces to think of their own power and potential. One of Rego’s reviewers commented that “...Quite a lot of male art explores the way in which men can be attracted to women while at the same time fearing and/or disliking them. These pictures involve something close to a reversal of that”[13]

One can argue that the fundamental force in Paula Rego’s work is based around gender. As was mentioned earlier however, this will always remain inextricably intertwined with politics, religion and culture. In Victor Willing's words “...All the time in Paula’s pictorial dramas things are going wrong (but) the accumulating disasters somehow adds up to a survival. The underlying drive in much of Rego’s work is gender based.” By understanding the drive and hostility towards the gender power struggle that goes on throughout Rego’s work, one can perhaps have a deeper understanding of the political and cultural messages also contained within.

Works such as ‘The Dance’ of 1988 depict a variety of female roles and explore how identity may be constructed through the relationships that exist among women as well as those between women and men. The painting ‘The Dance’ illustrates the various roles performed by women. Each of the women shown represents a different role, such as a mother, lover, companion or individual in her own right. Paula Rego has grouped the women in such a way that one is conscious of the different roles being played out just by observing the body language, facial expression and positioning of the characters in this piece. The woman to the far left stands alone, in a defiant and strong position, while in contrast to this the woman to her far left appears dependent on the man with whom she is dancing. We are unable to see this woman’s face, giving her anonymity. This almost gives the impression that she is no longer her own person and has perhaps in some way lost her identity to the man. Further away from this grouping two women and a small girl dance with one another in a circle. Both women are staring lovingly at the girl. One of the women is clearly much older and could perhaps be the other woman’s mother, who could in turn be the mother of the girl, which points to the pasts and futures of the two. One is unable to see the girl’s face clearly, although one can almost see her profile, possibly illustrating the continuing growth of the girl’s identity and her unsure future. At a first glance, the couple to the far right of this painting appear close. While the man is gazing lovingly at the woman however, she is staring into the distance in an extremely pensive manner and the man’s eyes do not actually appear to quite meet the woman’s face. The movement of the characters in this piece helps to convey the relationship between them all, the ever changing nature of these relationships and the suggestion of the ever changing gender power struggle.  

Rego feels that illustration is an integral aspect of all art “...since pictures have always been about stories”[14]. It is because of this that Rego has always admired English social satirists such as Hogarth. Rego’s work focuses specifically on female roles and in particular those of daughters and their relationships with their mothers. She challenges traditional pre-conceptions by making one question the story unfolding before their eyes.  As Katy Deepwell says in ‘Women Artists and Modernism’, There is no standardized relationship between a woman and her mother or a woman’s understanding of being a mother during the twentieth century and so one cannot assign such relationships to particular categories’. This can be accounted for in the way the concept of mothering has adapted with social policy, psychoanalytic theory and medicine- among many other things[15]. Rego explores this shifting relationship throughout much of her work, delving into the power struggle in female relationships and in particular the influence the relationship with one’s mother can have on the development of personal identity for a girl experiencing the transition into becoming a young woman.

Rego’s 1995 ‘Snow White’ series evidences the power shifts between Snow White and her Stepmother through a narrative that takes place across five different paintings. Although Rego has used a well known fairy tale, popularised by Walt Disney’s films, her very sinister and figurative painting places the narratives telling of these in her work, in bleak contrast to the stories we know so well from fairy tales and children’s films. The fact that the stories retain a sense of familiarity and one can at once recognise the children’s fairy tale that is being told, gives the events that are taking place even more of a disturbed edge. Seeing these adapted, contradicting and twisted narratives for the first time is akin to revisiting a place from a childhood memory and having the heavy realisation that something is not quite exact, that the things you thought you saw and remembered from before have their own alternate reality, one that is wholly out of your control. Rego said in 1996 in an interview with The Independent that “I haven’t changed the essence of the story. I’ve just told it differently from the film; and in the tale of Snow White that is the psychological war which is taking place between these two-generations of women”.[16]

Rego’s reworking of ‘Marriage a La Mode’ (The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck) transforms Hogarth’s work into a contemporary piece as relevant today as it was during the eighteenth century. Although Hogarth’s ‘Marriage a La Mode’ remains a relevant tale and is likely to remain so, its adaptation by Rego contributed a female perspective on the story, giving it a modern twist. In addition to this, in Rego’s version, rather than the men organising the marriage and so being the initiators of the disaster which later entails it, she portrays women negotiating the ‘devilish contract’[17] resonating her consistent theme of mothers- the mothers generally getting a “pretty bad press”[18].

In Rego’s adaptation of Hogarth’s ‘Marriage a La Mode’ she has preserved the theme of the doomed arranged marriage but set it in 1940’s Portugal. While reversing the role of the parents so that it is the mothers’ of the children making the marriage contract, Rego has also reversed the financial situations of the families. The girl’s family is upper-middle class but they have now lost the wealth they once had while the boy’s newly rich mother was once the maid of the girl’s family. Although Rego has transferred the power the men possess in Hogarth’s ‘Marriage A La Mode’ onto the women, the image of a man reflected in the mirror of the first piece of this triptych could perhaps still be an ominous reminder of the power men retain today and their underlying influence in this arranged marriage. The mirror is also a powerful symbol as it could be a reference to what one believes they can see or what they hope to see in the future.

In great contrast to Hogarth’s ‘Marriage a La Mode’, the male depicted in Rego’s work is shown as being extremely weak and dependent on the women surrounding him. This is captured in the first piece of the series where the male is shown hiding behind his mother, as though seeking her protection, and again, in the last of the series, where he is shown lying helplessly in the lap of his wife. The position of the girl in the first piece also comes across as being quite helpless and doll-like. This position is imitated in the last piece once she has been emotionally and physically crushed by her husband’s failure with him lying across her and preventing her from any movement if she is to remain supporting him. The girl, who was originally staring down at the floor, now a woman, stares off to the side as though contemplating the life that she could have had. The room around them is disorderly, reflecting the emotional chaos the two are now in. The snarling cat standing at the forefront of the painting simply adds to this feeling of chaos and irretrievable loss.

After viewing this work, one is left with the feeling that the selfish, short-sightedness of the women organising the marriage played to the ultimate downfall of their own children: The girl in particular is ultimately the one forced to pay for their oppression. The second piece of this series conveys the vanity of the girl’s mother as she gazes at her reflection in the mirror with pride and arrogance. Her vanity is further emphasised by the expression of her daughter as she gazes into the mirror which is simply that of deep thought and innocence. This piece is an effective example of Rego’s depiction of women and of their strengths and weaknesses. Having adapted it from a work by William Hogarth, one is able to see even more clearly the way in which Rego has made it her own personal work. Her adaptation encourages one to think further than the traditional story of ‘Marriage a La Mode’ presented by Hogarth, as the relationships between each of the characters has been much more clearly expressed within the composition and so is a much more emotional piece. It goes beyond exploring the morals of the situation, venturing into the interaction between the four people and the role reversal and power shifts taking place over the course of the work.

“My movements were dictated by decisions to do with leaving men and being with men” states Calle. She tells us that she travelled to communities in the Cevennes, Crete, Central America, Mexico, the Ardeche, The United States and Canada all because of various men she was with or, sometimes, men she was simply trying to forget. It wasn’t until she was twenty-six when she discovered photography that she was able to cease doing this.

As Rego is quoted as saying in Paula Rego’s Map of Memory, ‘I am Portuguese. I live in London, I like living in London, but I am Portuguese’ (Rodriguez Da Silva, 1988, 11) Rego therefore defines herself by her nationality and in her work, is profoundly influenced by the politics both past and present of her birth country and by its culture, mores and religious observances. This is clearly seen in the themes of her work such as her series on abortion in 1998-9.[19] Although the strong themes of gender issues and rights remain in this work, a more finely attuned level of understanding is retained from the knowledge that the artist who painted these is Portuguese- given the political and religious background of the country. Rego’s paintings from the 1960’s such as ‘ The Salazar Vomiting the Homeland’ and ‘When We Used To Have A House In The Country’, also serve to show her anger towards the oppressive regime that was then in its final decade ruling over Portugal.

The tension between ‘external conformity and internal revolt’[20] was an important aspect of her childhood in Portugal, where she was born in 1953, three years into the dictatorship of Antonio De Oliveira Salazar. Rego says that it was here she learned “ never asked questions, you never answered back”[21]  and also the command that secrets could have: It is this that has become the core element of her work today.
Combining these cultural and political scenes with the seemingly every day narrative, Rego captures the viewer in a far more intimate way than had she simply illustrated more literal representations of the oppressive effect the regime of Portugal, during the 1900’s, had on women.  In 1940 the Church and State together signed an agreement that Portuguese women should have only one woman as a role model from whom to emulate and that that woman should be the Virgin Mary. Women were pressured into obeying the male as the head of the household and submit to ‘domesticity, chastity and obedience’[22] and this was all enforced through legislation on marriage, divorce and employment law passed through at this time.

In many ways all of the work Rego has created has undercurrents of continual revolt against this regime that is so symbolic of male dominance. Throughout her life Rego had to contend with this male power on a personal level. Her acceptance of the fact that Victor Willing went back to his wife, after she had fallen pregnant with his child at eighteen, and her own descriptions of first meeting Willing, shows the way in which she utterly relinquished all of her power to him - a way which was ordinary and natural to her. She could not put any blame onto Willing for what he had done to her because she had surrendered herself to him and she had come from a world in which men were the ones with the authority.  Throughout her life Rego allowed the males closest to her to take control but through her paintings she takes back that control and dominance. It is as though Rego’s work is an act of revenge. Victor Willing himself said that she ‘punishes’ people with her paintings.

The use of women in Rego’s work has been strongly influenced by her childhood experiences as she felt that, as an artist, her mother was often  ‘discriminated against’ and that ‘art was man’s work’[23]. Paula Rego therefore set about portraying life through her work from a woman’s psychological point of view, exploring the roles of mothers, sisters and daughters- contrasting scenes of female oppression with scenes of female dominance. Women everywhere are able to recognise themselves in Paula’s work yet the women she grew up with in Portugal are also reflected in her work, recognised for their ‘compassion, stoicism and bravery’[24] in a way that they never have been previously- but also recognised for their weak and negative facets, their ‘coquetry, duplicity and cruelty’[25]. Rego herself stated that she uses Portuguese models for her work because, not only does she identify with them, she has a ‘profound admiration’ for them, particularly their bravery since they have to endure such hard lives. Rego has also always felt a connection with ordinary working people and as a child ‘always identified with the people’[26] who worked at her grandparent’s home in Ericeira. Her connection with these people was further intensified when she returned as a woman to live there and she was able to witness and value the extent of the hardships women suffered first hand.  To quote from ‘Tales from a True Life Class’; “She continues to investigate what it means to be female with emotional sophistication and unflinching strength.”[27] It is almost as though, through her painting, Rego is taking back a bit of the power these women have lost.

Primarily also, Rego is a storyteller. Less of a storyteller of autobiographical events she instead records complex relationships and emotions, which will often have been experienced by the viewer themselves. It is because of this that one is able to feel an immediate connection with Paula Rego’s work and the stories she tells. Rego’s love of stories was first nurtured by her grandparent’s and she vividly remembers her grandfather’s stories being “horrific”; “he’d speak of things coming alive in the dark and creeping through windows”[28]. She also remembers her Aunt Ludgera’s stories, which had an added twist to them when her Aunt would make her stories ‘real’ by dressing up in costumes of the characters from them- this was so convincing and unexpected that Rego was often left wondering whether her Aunt’s stories had in fact come to life (or had in fact, life come to them?). These stories remain to have a profound influence on Rego’s artwork, the roots of which lie in this “immemorial tradition of storytelling”[29].

[1] Paula Rego, Tate Gallery Publishing, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 8 February- 13 April 1997, Production Co-ordinated by Uwe Kraus GmbH
[2] Paula Rego’s Map of Memory, National and Sexual Politics, Maria Manuel Lisboa, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003, p.2
[3]Tales from a true life class,
[7] Don’t flinch, don’t hide, The Guardian, Saturday 30th November 2002, Suzie Mackenzie,
[8] Gwen John, Alicia Foster, 1999, Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, p. 9
[9] Sophie Calle, M’as Tu, Vue, Prestel Publishing 2010, Preface, Alfred Pacquement, p.16
[10] Bracha Ettinger, ‘Matrix and Metramorphosis’, Differences, 1992, p.196
[11] Don’t flinch, don’t hide, The Guardian, Saturday 30th November 2002, Suzie Mackenzie,
[13] Lanchester, John (1998), ‘Bulletins from the sex-war front’, The Daily Telegraph, Arts and Books (June 27), A5
[15] Katy Deepwell, Women Artists and Modernism, Manchester University Press, 1998, p.11
[16] The Independent, Tuesday 30th January 1996, The Secret Life of Snow White, Paula Rego
[17] Don’t flinch, don’t hide,,,850737,00.html
[18] Don’t flinch, don’t hide,,,850737,00.html
[19] Paula Rego’s Map of Memory, National and Sexual Politics, Maria Manuel Lisboa, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003
[20] Paula Rego’s Map of Memory, National and Sexual Politics, Maria Manuel Lisboa, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003, p.3
[21] Don’t flinch, don’t hide, The Guardian, Saturday 30th November 2002, Suzie Mackenzie,
[22] Paula Rego’s Map of Memory, National and Sexual Politics, Maria Manuel Lisboa, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003
[23] Paula Rego, John McEwan, Phaidon Press 1997, p242
[24] Paula Rego, John McEwan, Phaidon Press 1997
[25] Paula Rego, John McEwan, Phaidon Press 1997
[26] Paula Rego, John McEwan, Phaidon Press 1997, p243
[27] Tales from a true life class,
[28] Paula Rego, John McEwan, Phaidon Press 1997, p21
[29] Paula Rego, John McEwan, Phaidon Press 1997, p21

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