Creator of well-planned accidents
In Snare, the girl bends over the dog, swinging him uncomfortably, intensively trying to kiss. Her skirt is like a shell, or more like a walnut. Horse with an empty carriage, upside-down crab and two blooming flowers are in the foreground. Setup in the beach, far to be on holidays mood. Incredible tension.
In Love, the woman lies on the red drapery, hands placed on her heart. Her head is tilted, eyes look far in the distant. Mouth is half open, with no intention to speak. No one else is around.
And that is the point where the narrative starts to develop or is open to debates. All the other works have a story and allows you to develop the narrative as well. Characters in motion. They look like captured on the spot, doing their routine, unaware of the spectator. Unless, quite opposite, they stare at you, and they want you to know that. By the hand of the artist, they are caught at the most unwelcomed time. At the time of shame, powerlessness, weakness. As a subject of caretaking, absence. What I learned later, they can be treated as a dairy and story of her life, yet coded, full of symbols.
Paula Rego (b. 1935) is a Portuguese-born visual artist who is particularly known for her visual paintings and prints based on storybooks. At the age of seventeen, she was sent to the United Kingdom to finish school and start studies on art. She joined the Slade School of Fine Art, where she met her husband, a student as well. In 1957, they moved to Portugal, and within two years’ time got married. Fact that her future-husband was married should be omitted here. In 1966, Rego’s husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 1974, the Portuguese revolution overtook the country, and Rego family moved permanently to London, where they spent most of their time there until the death of Rego’s husband. Some facts, but they vividly shine the light on the artist background. Young from the strict community, where obedience is the key characteristic child should have, found herself in a daring place, London. Afterwards, her husband placed her in the caretaker’s position, making the shift in commonly declared values. For her, women are strong; men are weak .
Knowing the biography and key lifetime points helps to unwrap the works described previously. The crab on his back in Snarecan be referenced to poor Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’, male provider turned family nuisance. And languid dog (or masculine body) gets the attention. The woman in Love (from the series of ‘Dog Women’) was painted with a second Rego’s child as a model, dressed in Rego’s wedding dress. She liked the kind of continuity in her work and expressed the emotions she had at the time. The series of ‘Dog Women’ was done after her husband passed away. Also, dog comes in the memory of her childhood. She spent much of her time around dogs, including stray ones, both menacing and comforting. In the series, this can be associated with the physical side of the being. According to Rego, to picture a woman as a dog is utterly believable. <…> Women learn from those they are with; they are trained to do certain things, but they are also part of the animal ’. Helpless dog in Snare is confronted by doglike pose of a strong woman.
Rego’s charged narratives are presented through different medium.
- Mixed media and collages
Early works resemble Miro, Picasso. Full of political events, everyday news, happenings, references to affairs, Greek myths. Sometimes difficult to recognize the events, whether they meant to be recognisable or not is another question, sometimes the titles provide a clue towards to work.
- Acrylic on paper or canvas
Works of a raw, violent simplicity; planes of colours,
- Pastels on paper or canvas
Rego started extensively using pastels in 1994. Here, reference could be made to Degas’s nudes made with pastels.
She favoured pastels over oils for its tactility and strength required to push against the surface of the canvas, ‘it was like painting with your fingers’. She said that pastel allowed her to go repeatedly into the interior and change the form, making it come more alive. Thickly layered and textured marks are combined into expressive gestures and intensify the overall setting of her enigmatic figures, created from live models.
As Rego puts it, ‘all printmaking is to do with drawing if you do it directly and it’s what I like to do. I love to draw. When I was at the Slade I took refuge in the print room because in the print room you can draw images quickly so I’ve always found relief and release in being able to do images more quickly’ . No hesitation in pre-planned narratives makes Rego’s prints sharp and witty, at the same time. Even if the chosen topic is not based on fairy tales (which are often really cruel), but on the painfully sensitive moral challenges to humanity. To achieve wide audience, after making ‘Abortion’ series paintings, she made the etchings. They were published in some Portuguese newspapers in 2007, before the second referendum on abortion legalisation.
Mother Loves You, 2009 from the ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ Series
The exhibition ‘Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance' at the MK Gallery spreads throughout five rooms each accompanied by Rego’s quotation and covers all the medium describe above. Early collages, works from mid-1980s, abortion and female genital mutilation series, narratives inspired by literature and plays, and woman painter in a man’s world, while somewhere in between the rooms, the Rego’s career was showed through the eyes of the artist’s son. His film ‘Secrets and Stories’ (2017) shares the unique opportunity to trace the biography of the artist from her bourgeois background in Portugal to the arrival at the Stale School of art and her marriage. Rego openly declares her values and share insights to her life.
Currently, you can also see Paula Rego works on display at Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. On the other hand, Milton Keynes is so far away – in any case, you are going to see the brilliant storyteller.
 Exhibition catalogue 'Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance'
 Proper review at Guardian