Strange Intimacies: A Survey of Paula Rego in Cascais, Portugal
Paula Rego: Folktales and fairy tales at the Museu Paula Rego: Casa das Histórias, Cascais
May 8 to September 30, 2018
Avenida da República, 300
2750-475 Cascais, Portugal
Any given work by Paula Rego has an electric charge at its core. No matter how familiar one might be with the individual piece, or how long ago it was made, it remains alive and ready to shock. Folktales and Fairy Tales spans five decades, from drawings made in the 1970s found recently in a drawer to Sophie’s Misfortunes, a painting completed six months ago. This large, freely exuberant work is the fruit of a lifetime in the studio. The museum devoted to Rego’s work is in Cascais, a tranquil seaside town outside Rego’s native Lisbon. The building itself is a masterpiece by prize-winning architect Edouardo Souto de Moura, an elegant fortress in gorgeous rusty pink set among trees, its pyramidal roof structures echoing historical Portuguese palaces and monasteries.
The exhibition, curated by Catarina Alfaro and Leonor de Oliviera, is a feast of originality, with paintings, pastels, drawings, collages, and extra treats like a life-size papier maché pig in satin clothes, used as a studio prop; a collection of Rego’s exquisitely sewn grotesque figures; and the actual heavy volume of fairy tales by Charles Perrault, illustrated by Gustav Doré, which first captivated and, she has often said, terrified the artist as a child.
Brought up for a while by her grandmother and a nanny, Rego was exposed in her formative years to stories that have had a life-time’s grip on the artist’s imagination. Her parents sent her to London in her teens to get her away from Salazar’s repressive regime of ‘unquestionable certainties’ which demanded either fascist values or turning a blind eye to torture and pervasive dishonesty. In London, where she still lives, she met her future husband, the painter Victor Willing, then a star student at the Slade and friend of Francis Bacon. In an extraordinary, highly praised film made by their son Nick Willing, Secrets and Stories, Rego tells how everyone knew that all the men in Portugal went to brothels. Two piercingly good drawings of a procuress with her clients and a prostitute enjoying a rest show indolence and mercenary calculation, sleaziness and irony. Seen through Rego’s eyes, they are ultimately working women.
I asked Nick whether he thought that his father was his mother’s Muse. According to Rego, she adored and couldn’t help obeying him from the start, and when he died in 1988, aged 60, after years of suffering from multiple sclerosis, her first fear was that she wouldn’t be able to paint without him. She almost never directly drew him – although he made many beautiful nude paintings of her – but there is one portrait of him in the exhibition, sitting at a family meal. But a great deal of Rego’s work is, actually, about caring for him, and watching him being cared for by others, in paintings of strong young women vigorously dressing a limp soldier, father or brother figure, nearly suffocating him with their arms and pushing themselves up against the male figure’s crotch. And when the weak male figure is depicted standing alone with his bag, waiting to leave on a journey, he represents the dying Vic. But Nick pointed out that a female artist’s male muse is very different from, say, Picasso’s egoistic passion for a piece of flesh on the beach, and that all his mother’s work is imbued with the presence of his father and her feelings for him.
Rego’s use of myth and folktale is quite similar to Jung’s analytical approach: For both, the stories are a way to confront the self and access the unconscious. Rego’s practice is based in drawing from life. People pose for her in the studio, often having to hold extremely demanding positions. According to Nick, the living, changing presence of the model is important to her. In 1985, Lila Nunes came from Portugal as an au pair for the family. For years, she has been not only Rego’s model but a kind of alter ego. Paintings of her can be viewed, almost, as self portraits.
Snow White and her Stepmother (1995), despite its title, could as well be a procuress with her novice. Or else, in line with the original story, it could represent a jealous stepmother trying to prevent her stepdaughter from growing up. Two strong, coarse-featured women are involved in an act of strange intimacy. The more sophisticated elder, wearing a tight dress and high heels, takes charge, stooping to help the other remove, or perhaps put on, a sensible pair of white knickers. The younger one is a simpler and more compliant type—in fact it is Lila, wearing a shapeless version of the dress from Walt Disney’s “Snow White” and a child’s rumpled white socks on her large feet. Facial expressions are hard to fathom in a work charged with sexuality. Violence is in the air, but what exactly is happening is anybody’s guess.
Rego’s work defies explanation. Even the Abortion series of paintings and prints from 1998 – not included in the exhibition, these are among her most explicit and strongly focused works, made as a passionate protest against Portugal’s anti-abortion laws – extends far beyond its subject, and is intrinsically ambiguous. The small prints were easily portable and widely shown around the country, and did indeed help sway public opinion and ultimately change the law. Together with images that protest human trafficking and female genital mutilation, these are the works, according to Rego, of which she is most proud. But although they have earned her a following among feminists and human rights activists in Britain and Portugal, the crouching, writhing, agonized women she has depicted, she has observed, could as well be opening up to a lover as to the abortionist’s knife.