23 November 2019 – 19 April 2020
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)
‘My favourite themes are power games and hierarchies. I always want to turn things on their heads to upset the established order, to change heroines and idiots…at the same time as loving the stories. I want to undermine them, like wanting to harm someone you love. Above all though, I want to work with stories that emerge as I go along.’ Paula Rego
Obedience and Defiance is the first major retrospective of Paula Rego’s work to be shown in Scotland, with a very timely focus on the politics of power and political agency. Featuring over 80 works from the 1960’s to 2010’s, it’s an intensive trajectory of self-examination and discovery. What I took away from this show, and what I know will stay with me, is the pure inspiration of creative protest and the towering strength of feminine resilience. As you move through each room, Rego’s intelligence, will and evolutionary craft are courageously forged in the mind. Informed by her thirty-year friendship with the artist, Catherine Lampert’s curation creates an intimate and appropriately monumental sense of Rego’s stature and humanity. Paula Rego moves very naturally between deeply personal and collective fields of reference. Whilst autobiographical or culturally specific narrative triggers are often the drivers, her compositions invite wider interpretation and debate. Rego’s art actively hands imaginative power back to the viewer in a spirit of free association.
The artist’s Girl and Dog series is a good example, inspired by her husband’s battle with MS and the role of carer. A viewer may know nothing about the personal history/ iconography in Untitled (1986 acrylic on canvas), but immediately the positioning of the figure and the inferred relationship is unusual and arresting. Firstly, the girl child/ woman is the dominant presence or agent in the image, rendered in a way that embraces benevolence and malevolence simultaneously. Cemented and entwined at opposing angles with a large black dog perched on her lap, this isn’t just a girl with her pet we are witnessing. Despite the presence of yellow, lilac and blue, the tonality and delineation are heavily set. The female protagonist’s determined brow is only just visible, focussed not on play or the potential for a walk, but about to snap closed the final link in the metaphorical chain around the dog’s neck. The girl’s spiked yellow arm band and dress, which feels like the costume for a circus act, has an edge of ambiguity and menace. In another emotive twist, the dog is rendered empathically. Despite his robust form, his black eyes are drained of life. He sits not just obediently, but with resignation, staring ahead and beyond the picture plane, tended and equally trapped.
These starkly defined figures, tempered by love, impending loss and resentment are on one level a double portrait of real life, however they also transcend the personal, presenting a rich seam of universal triggers and the possibility of multiple narrative interpretations. The archetypal examination of the caregiver role, the dynamics of power between an animal and its master, the balance or imbalance between masculine and feminine aspects of the psyche or within society, our capacity for loyalty and compassion, dominance and submissiveness, creation and destruction, life and death, are all at play in this work. Rego is consistently fearless in addressing the complexity of human emotions and desires.
In a similar way, Rego’s Dog Woman series, which has its origins in a Portuguese fairy tale, presents the viewer with hidden motivations and truths about the human condition. In many ways they reflect constrained civilization, fraught with frightening and liberating physicality of the animal within. Bound to their masters and existing on an edge between love and punishment, these are powerful figures of feminine aggression and sexuality, so often relegated to a corner of the room, the psychological belfry or society’s hidden basement. Rego courageously brings them into the light and into public consciousness in exhibition works like Dog Woman (1952 pencil on paper), Sleeper (1994 pastel on canvas), Love (1995 pastel on paper mounted on aluminium) and catalogue works Bad Dog (1994 pastel on canvas), Dog Woman (1994 pastel on canvas) and Baying (1994 pastel on canvas). The Dog Woman series is a highly significant body of work, not just in terms of Rego’s oeuvre and development as an artist, but for what these images represent in terms of the ongoing struggle for equality.
Throughout the exhibition, Rego emerges as an absolute Master of her art. Witnessing the distillation of her voice from masked abstraction to unbridled boldness is an empowering experience. Regardless of inherited circumstances, making art gives licence to explore what is forbidden, reinterpret history and initiate change. Rego’s avenging Angel (1998, pastel on paper mounted on aluminium) strikes me as not just standing at her shoulder in this respect, but as an unwitting symbol of her own right hand. Angel is an expression of compassion and action, with a sponge to taste bitter gall in one hand and a vengeful sword in the other. These emblems of passion and sacrifice are not just the artist’s Arma Christi, but feminine weaponry originating in lived experience and collective memory.
In a domestic image such as Sit (1994, pastel on canvas), we see the societal command of a title which pins the female protagonist to an armchair, hands behind her back and feet crossed, invisibly nailed in the manner of Christ’s crucifixion. It’s a timelessly stark predicament with the suggestion of pregnancy, dressed and upholstered in pleasing, demure florals. The woman’s eyes are directed above and it’s the whites of her eyes which hook in the mind and slowly creep under the skin. Sit isn’t just an image of enforced expectation; dutiful woman, wife, mother, but one ‘anointed’ with fear. ‘Giving fear a face’ is perhaps Rego’s greatest gift, because it is only when trauma is acknowledged that it can be processed and creatively transformed, individually and collectively. Storytelling is how we make sense of ourselves and it’s the retelling in Rego’s work, drawing on ancient mythology, folklore, popular culture and current affairs, that is personally and politically transformative. Her work is a reckoning with inequality and injustice, using imagination to affect change in the world and reimagine a different state of play. This ‘turning the tables’ of expectation, about what it means to be human, female and an artist, is a defining characteristic of her practice.
Rage against oppression and inequality have always been present in Rego’s art. From her early 1952 pencil drawing Dog Woman in a crouched position rabidly barring her teeth, to ‘violent cutting’ of The Imposter (1964 oil and mixed media on paper collage and canvas), and later pastels tackling human atrocities such as war, anti-abortion legislation, FGM and sex trafficking. Throughout her career, she has always grappled with human nature and its contradictions, never shying away from our potential for complicity. Rego’s great strength and where she really comes into her own, is in the dynamic suspension of all that we are and are fighting to be, in taut, monumental pastels, dominated by female protagonists. Her use of this medium is unexpected and completely transformative, giving soft intimacy a distinctive edge of urgent, burgeoning consciousness. Rego’s high definition pastels articulate rather than blend away truth. The artist’s trajectory extends toward integration of masculine and feminine, seizing what has been historically denied or hidden. Works like Joseph’s Dream (1990, acrylic on paper on canvas) and Painting Him Out (2011, pastel on paper mounted on aluminium) actively reclaim creativity, despite enduring social hierarchies and the received canon of art history which casts women as submissive or irrelevant. Rego actively embraces the desire and entitlement of making images, traditionally assigned to “Masters”;
‘Painting pictures is like being a man, really. It’s the part of you that’s the man. Even the way you stand or sit, confronting the work like a man and it has to do with the aggressive part. It has the kind of push, the thrust which you must normally associate with what being a man is.’
Empowerment is doing and making, redefining yourself, your perceived role in society and its underlying structures in the process. In the spoilt, ego driven art world of the late 1990’s and 2000’s, Rego reveals what art can stand for and against- not just in her own time, but for all time. All great artists transcend themselves and Rego is no exception. Growing up in Portugal under the totalitarian rule of António de Oliveira Salazar, a highly repressed society in terms of gender, class and colonialism, the seeds of protest were sewn. In such conditions, expression becomes encoded and survival an imperative. Rego’s escape route, to Britain and the Slade School of Art in the 1950’s, presented her with a different set of cultural and institutional constraints to negotiate. Discussing her coming of age experiences in the 2017 documentary Secret and Stories (directed by her son Nick Willing) the artist’s congruence and openness about what it is to be female is still painfully relevant. While advances have been made and legislation may have altered in certain countries, class privilege is still the only thing affording freedom of choice for many women throughout the world. Every advance in the fight for equality must also be measured against the epidemic of modern slavery. The trafficking of women and girls is a growing industry which Rego makes visible in her work. The artist as witness has an incredibly important role to play in terms of political agency and visibly upholding freedom of expression, doubly so in a “post-truth” world.
A survivor of oppression and injustice is also a witness and this transformation of self-awareness is at the heart of all Rego’s work, extending far beyond autobiography. This powerful gaze of resilience is exchanged with the viewer in the Abortion series (1998-1999), where Rego skilfully reveals lived experience we cannot turn away from. It is full frontal confrontation with life and a rallying call to action, delivered without gore and in deliberately palatable colours. Rego defiantly makes unnecessary suffering visible to the world. Her direct response to the lack of votes in Portugal’s 1998 referendum was to create large scale pastels and etchings for wider dissemination, making female experiences of illegal abortion visible in the public domain for the first time. These images were instrumental in raising awareness about a taboo subject and aided the second referendum which legalised abortion in 2007. However, Rego’s Abortion series isn’t simply a visual campaign. Her series delves deeper than anyone else has dared, into the foundations of power written on the body and internalised. The way that trauma is held in the body as memory and physical response, strikes me immediately looking at Rego’s drawings, pastels and etchings from this series. Rego has spoken candidly about her positioning of the female figure in these works. The dynamic of tension created in blurring the line between anticipation of penetration by a lover and the abortionist’s hand is a deliberate trigger of profound unease. Untitled No 5 (1998 pastel on paper) is a good example, where the woman braces herself against the bed, legs separated by two folding chairs, dressed in a floral sundress as if on a date. The suggestion of seduction and violation are equally present. Although depicted clinically, the human need for affection, love and sex become disturbingly entwined with ideas of Romance and trauma in this image. The wider question of how we learn to become women enters the frame.
The dualism of human fear and desire within and hidden by institutions of church and state also join the debate. As Rego has stated ‘guilt doesn’t come into it.’ It is atrocious that it (abortion) is forbidden’, causing untold suffering and deaths that are entirely preventable across the world. Whatever your gender, life experience or beliefs, what Rego resoundingly confronts the viewer with is survival. She places her female protagonists front and centre, clothed in school uniforms and grimaced in pain, defiantly meeting our gaze. Untitled No 1 (1998 pastel on paper) is an image I returned to several times. A woman in a red headscarf and blue dress sits knees drawn up on a bed with a pink doormat beneath her. Her strong features and steady gaze are a counterfoil to the tension in her mouth and jaw. It feels like she is biting the inside of her mouth, waiting. Beside her is a patterned porcelain bowl, a refined vessel in contrast to the red stained basin and bucket stacked under the bed. The inference is that this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last. The woman’s muscular poise in that moment are composed of absolute dignity, in the most undignified of circumstances. Her presence and right to be is undeniable, communicated in Rego’s masterful composition. The artist places the viewer in a position of potential complicity with her suffering, at bed height, our feet squarely on the ground, the right foot almost touching the protruding buckets. The reality of this work is inescapable in all its brutality and injustice, with shock supplanted by knowing and compassion. Even in the face of horrific, highly controversial subject matter, such as Two Women Being Stoned (1995 pastel on paper mounted on aluminium) or Mother Loves You (2009 etching and aquatint) from the FGM series, the artist creates a space for honest reflection. Rego’s work is raw and highly sophisticated in equal measure. Her magnificent triptych The Betrothal; Lessons: The Shipwreck, After Marriage A La Mode by Hogarth (1999) is another wonderful example. There is just so much experience, knowledge and insight in every panel!
Seeing the evolution of Paula Rego’s practice throughout the show is a triumph of self-determination. It’s an eternal dance between obedience and defiance that declares an unbreakable spirit with absolute clarity. Her willingness and courage to go wherever the creative process takes her, without a predetermined outcome, allows the artist to explore our deepest human drives. Rego’s rare, unfaltering honesty define her art and political agency, inspiring not just contemplation in a gallery setting, but action in the wider world. Grounded in everyday life, she works her magic, weaving stories and renegotiating the nature of power in the process.