The Victorian dictum ‘every picture tells a story’ is true of Paula Rego’s works, but it’s only part of the truth. Rego has said that she hopes and expects that when people look at her pictures, ‘Things will come out that I’m not even aware of.’ And that’s right too: every marvellous picture tells so many stories, and is so charged with under- and overtones, that no one, including its creator, can be aware of everything that’s going on.
That’s certainly true of many works in the Rego retrospective at Tate Britain. All notable painters and sculptors are, of course, sui generis. They don’t follow established rules; instead they make up a new set to suit their own creative personalities. So the show, as well as revealing Rego’s greatness (at least to those who were not conscious of it already), also poses a question: what kind of artist is she?
Both biographically and aesthetically, Rego is a hybrid. Born and brought up in Portugal, she went to art school in London, and has spent most of her long life (she was born in 1935) in Britain. I once asked her whether she felt more Portuguese or British. She replied: ‘I’m really both, exactly both.’
What’s more, she’s worked against the grain of both cultures. Rego arrived in this country in 1951 and studied art at the Slade, which was then dominated by the doctrines of austerely truthful naturalism instilled by the principal, William Coldstream.
Up to a point, she accepted Coldstream’s advice always to paint what she knew and cared for. Thus in 1954, tackling the set subject for a student composition — Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ — she turned to a Portuguese kitchen. The result, which won a prize, is one of the earliest pictures in the Tate show.
Rego’s individuality is already there in embryo: she told a story, visually, but transposed it on to her own experience. No one looking at this painting would associate it with Dylan Thomas or Wales, though they might connect these burly women with gigantic hands, the dead chicken one is holding and the eggs they are frying with Picasso or Velazquez. She started off Hispano–British in sensibility, and so she has remained.
If Rego’s late style was already implicit at the beginning, however, there was a long and complex evolution before she attained full visual maturity. Her pictures from the 1960s, after she had married and returned to Portugal, were nothing to do with Coldstream’s careful scrutiny of the world at large. Indeed they were barely figurative at all. These little–known works are the major revelation of the Tate show: full of quivering innards, anger and an atmosphere of menace. The title and visceral imagery of ‘Salazar Vomiting the Homeland’ (1960) is quite close to the messy organic abstraction of Alan Davie; others bring to mind the savage comedy of Picasso’s ‘Dream and Lie of Franco’ (1937). All of them express her fury and disgust at the fascist dictatorship which then ruled her native land.
By the 1970s, Rego had moved back to Britain and begun to paint complex visual fantasias with a touch of the children’s story book about them. ‘Aida’ (1983) involves giant rabbits, monkeys and crocodiles, as well as various cartoony figures in ancient Egyptian dress. The idiom by which she is best known did not appear until the late-1980s, by which time Rego was in her fifties.
A masterpiece of that time such as ‘The Maids’ (1987) has a lot in common with her student ‘Under Milk Wood’, in that it’s based on a literary source: Jean Genet’s play about two servants who murder their mistress and her daughter. But Rego did not depict the violent denouement, but instead the situation which led to it. The sinister scene takes place in a lush 1950s interior like a set from a Buñuel film, with — bizarre touch — a pet pig in the corner.
As you walk through the show, Rego’s work carries on getting grander and subtler. In the 1990s she discovered her ideal medium, which turned out to be pastel (the reason being that, as Rego has noted, she’s not really a painter but a ‘drawer’). This gives a beautiful, soft, shimmering surface to works such as ‘Angel’ (1998) and ‘War’ (2003).
Many of her finest achievements are really gigantic, wall-sized drawings but with all the force of a painting. They are also done from a life model, a real person whom the artist carefully depicts — but, so to speak, ‘in character’. Thus she’s come full circle: back to the Slade and Coldstream’s meticulous attention to what was in front of him.
Rego’s work is so richly abundant that this large exhibition still isn’t big enough. In particular, it has too few of her prints. Rego is an artist, like her hero Goya, whose brilliance is at full strength in black and white. So if you want to see the full Rego story, also visit the survey of etchings, lithographs and aquatints at the Cristea Roberts Gallery, 43 Pall Mall.
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