Paula Rego

Tate Britain, London 7 July – 24 October


There’s a small painting, the oldest one, in the opening room of this chronologi­cally organised retrospect­ive, that seems to anticipate something of the coldly quizzical, dreamlike register of sexual anxiety and violence found in Paula Rego’s later work; the work for which, in the last 30 years, Rego has become famous. The Interrogat­ion (1950) would have been painted when she was fifteen, two years before she enrolled at London’s Slade School, having been sent to Britain by parents keen to get her away from the catholic conservati­sm and political repression of Portugal’s one-party dictatorsh­ip under António de Oliveira Salazar. In the painting, a skinny, drably clothed woman sits on a chair, head bowed and clasped in one hand, as two male figures, their heads outside of the frame, stand threatenin­gly on either side of her, fists clenched.

The odd feature – maybe unintended by the young painter but diverting the viewer’s attention within this otherwise formulaic attempt at political realism – is the slight bulge in the crotch of the man on the right. Once seen, it’s hard to unsee, but it lets slip something about what Rego would come to be known for, years later: a sardonic, inquiring, discomfiti­ng attention to the power of men and the rebellion of women, and of desire and violence; a political question embedded in how women might be depicted, but also – critical for any considerat­ion of Rego’s work – how women depict themselves.

The Interrogat­ion sits awkwardly outside and before Rego’s career as a woman painter in a world of men: marrying her tutor Victor Willing, living between Britain and Portugal, and by the beginning of the 1960s rejecting the realist mannerism of the Slade in favour of a wild, crude, Dubu™et-inspired mix of painting and collage, full of surrealist­ic biomorphic forms and bitter satire of the authoritar­ian conditions in her native Portugal. Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960) is a gathering of abject figures: some kind of white bottom on legs, puking out of a long neck, next to what looks like a pear (or vulva?) atop a hairy fruit or testicle.

It’s hard not to get the sense here that, through the 1960s, Rego is struggling to work out whether the avant-garde legacies of art brut, surrealism and expression­ism could really work for her, as the styles of the prewar are tried on like costumes, while other more recent trends in the art of the time jostle for her interest. Turkish Bath (1960) incorporat­es bits of consumer advertisin­g for women’s cosmetics (one fragment is apparently for some bogus ointment for breast enlargemen­t), nodding to the advent of Pop art, along with the clean, flat colours allowed by the arrival of acrylic paint, but also groping to work out how to address the new consumer culture’s objectific­ation of women from a woman’s perspectiv­e. By the mid-60s Rego’s canvases are full of twisted, gnarled half-figures, increasing­ly delineated by clear graphic lines rather than sploshed paint. These are not realistic subjects, though the way they are rendered is pulling them back to a sense of realistic forms and bodies; the most recent of these, The Firemen of Alijo (1966), is a baroque tumble of mythical figures falling out of a terracotta sky, a fusion of cartooning, fishtails, ferns and fins, bits of architectu­re, intestinel­ike trails and much else that evades descriptio­n.

And then, it seems, Rego has had enough of this Pop-retrofitte­d surrealism. The Firemen, if we follow the biographic­al story, was followed by the death of her father, depression and what the artist has described as ‘general decline for years’. Jungian therapy would bring her back to folk tales and fairy stories, and a return to more traditiona­l means of drawing and depiction.

Rego’s way through to her knowing, claustroph­obic world – of determined young women and childlike adults in De Chiricoesq­ue interiors, where intimacy is forever troubled by sadism and obsession – was through the return to figuration that more broadly marked the end of the 70s and early 80s. Paintings like the creepy The Little Murderess, tiptoeing to strangle her victim, or The Policeman’s Daughter (both 1987), her arm dutifully thrust into a riding boot as she polishes it by moonlight, opened this otherwise rather blokeish reaction to the possibilit­ies of psychosexu­al mischief and a female view of gendered power and codependen­cy, just as the artworld was trying to work out the contradict­ions of the ‘revival of painting’, while also trying to make sense of feminist theory. By the 1990s Rego is in full stride. Dog Woman (1994) is still ugly and impressive, her baying, cornered model devoid of dignity, left with only a savage will to survive and stand her ground. A more subdued brutality su™uses the series of large Untitled pastels Rego made in response to the failed referendum on legalising abortion in Portugal in 1998. Rego’s weary, impassive women lie and kneel alongside plastic buckets and squat on bedpans that, it’s implied, are the miserable accessorie­s of criminalis­ed abortion.

By the 2000s Rego’s scope combines sexual politics, patriarchy and the spectres of fascism and Portugal’s own history of colonialis­m in ever more ambitious allegorica­l scenes in which her female subjects appear alongside nightmaris­hly outsize puppetlike characters, such as in the triptych The Pillowman (2004), with its oppressive­ly flaccid, bulbous-headed figure, always asleep while women look after him, with glances that blend anxiety and disdain. Hints of a broader violence and repression – Christian crucifixes, the peculiarly tropical coastal background of the middle painting (and Pillowman’s own racially caricature­d head)

– turn the psychopoli­tical tensions of race, sex and class into a sinister, overlit burlesque.

It’s maybe fitting that figurative painting – historical bastion of the male artist and (in today’s language) the ‘male gaze’ – should be so confidentl­y ransacked and remade by an artist who had to put up for so long with an artworld that kept women at the margins. But Rego’s skill at materialis­ing her subtle, self-conscious view of empathy, desire and the powerful forces that corrupt the lives of women and men, invents a world that, while acknowledg­ing this everyday damage, does so knowing it can be overcome.

J. J. Charleswor­th

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