In 1998, after a referendum in Portugal to legalise abortion failed, Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego started a series of pastels on the subject. These monumental works, which are titled by number in a manner that reflects the spare frankness of their mood, bear witness to young, isolated women in plain rooms, curled up or prostrate in pain, or sitting on a fold-up bed holding their knees apart. One image shows a girl squatting over a bucket in school uniform. There is an obvious pathos to their situation, but these women are dignified, their faces steely with resignation. It was partly as a result of this affecting series, which was displayed widely in Portugal, that abortion was legalised in 2007 after a further referendum. This body of work, along with others from across Rego’s prolific career, is currently on display in a vivid retrospective at MK Gallery, the painter’s first in England for over 20 years.
The exhibition has been assembled by art historian and former Whitechapel director Catherine Lampert, and comprises Rego’s paintings, drawings, pastels and prints from the 1960s, after she graduated from the Slade, all the way up to the present day. Their cumulative effect is one of quiet but ominous tension, a threatening ambivalence generated by the startling physical and psychological power of Rego’s women.
The pictures, as Rego refers to them, address the fine line between intimacy and violence, often played out through the bodies of women (largely the artist’s long-time model Lila Nunes) and animals. One of Rego’s most intriguing series is ‘Girl and Dog’ from the 1980s in which sturdy but daintily dressed girls tend to a helpless dog that represents the artist’s sick husband Victor Willing. The girls dress or shave the dog in gestures of care so forceful that they border on cruelty. Significantly placed objects, including a delicate daisy and a sharp hammer, cast long shadows in the foreground and add to the uncanny, dangerous atmosphere.
Rego’s work is undeniably powerful, both technically and emotionally, but her exhibition at MK Gallery also successfully brings together an incisive selection of key pieces that show her incredible range, from her exuberantly abstract and overtly political early work, railing against the Portuguese dictator Salazar, to the eerier, stiller style that matured in the 1980s and came to define her. Other highlights in the show include the ‘Crime of Father Amaro’ pastels, based on a notorious Portuguese novel that tells the tale of a priest who fantasises about the Virgin Mary. Rego’s depiction turns from languid, nascent eroticism in ‘The Company of Women’ (1997), as she imagines the priest, a grown man, pampered by the family maids of his childhood, to an atmosphere of lonely shame in ‘The Cell’ (1997), in which the protagonist lies on his front, contorted in desire, a Virgin Mary doll prone under his bed. ‘Angel’ (1998) shows a woman wielding a sponge and a sword, both protector and avenger in swathes of luminous, Velázquez-like golden drapery.
While you can sense a playful glint in Rego’s eye as her women dominate, humiliate and in one case, quite literally castrate their submissive, male counterparts, Rego is deadly serious. She paints, she says, to ‘give fear a face’, lending it human and animal form in nightmarish fairy-tales that reveal the animalistic, repressed aspects of human nature in all their mordant glory, a phantasmagoria of dread and desire.