Paula Rego grew up under the anti-communist Catholic dictatorship of Salazar’s corporatism Estado Novo in Portugal, with shadows of the secret police around every corner. It is hardly surprising that her images resonate with menace, ambiguity and the threat or actuality of violence. The Maids is a painting based on the Jean Genet’s eponymous play, which itself was based on the true-life story of two sisters who murder their rich French employer and her daughter in a calculated role-playing ritual. Two preliminary drawings are on show, but neither portrays the impending danger seen in the painting, which contains a hog-like dog snarling in the corner. In a study for The Policeman’s Daughter, there is a young girl polishing a long black boot, with a castellated doll’s house at her feet. In the painting, the girl has become a young woman, and her hand is rammed into the boot up to her elbow in what can only be described as a ‘Mapplethorpe manoevre.’ The doll’s house has been supplanted by a stretching cat. None of her characters are remotely attractive. The women are tough, lumpen, harsh and physically awkward, particularly her series of Dog Woman drawings, while her children, with large heads and thick ankles, lack even a whiff of innocence. Rego counts herself as a storyteller, and she draws on Iberian folklore, as well as dark fairy tales, with a brooding sense of psycho-sexual behaviour. In a series of three pen and watercolour drawings entitled The Dinner Party, a tall, rangy woman in a long dress dances with two young boys. It transpires that the woman is Princess Diana and the two boys are William and Harry. Each was priced at £22,000, while Two Girls Sawing was catalogued at £45,000.
She has come a long way since she appeared with Peter Greenaway, Ridley Scott, Eduardo Paolozzi and Terry Gilliam, in a seminal exhibition at the Hayward in 1996 called Spellbound: Art and Film. Her contribution was a series of Disneyfied pastels depicting scenes from Fantasia, Pinocchio and Snow White, but with reverse anthropomorphism in the first, featuring ungainly women in black ‘ostrich’ outfits squeezed into non-aspect ratio frames, and a curious relationship between Snow White and her stepmother, which could just be the underlying theme of jealousy. Rego’s son-in-law, a film model maker Ron Mueck, had his first public display in the same show, with his realistic Pinocchio, a mere 85cm tall, leaning slightly forward with a quizzical and slightly embarrassed look, naked except for a pair of tiny Y-fronts. Her works highlighting the laws surrounding the abortion laws in Portugal are nothing if not harrowing, but they aroused interest and raised awareness in her home country, and the laws were liberalised in 2007. Her studies for Caritas contain all sorts of sexually ambiguous activities, with children sitting astride old gentlemen, while The Artist in her Studio is a mélange of animalistic figures, children, toys and statuary. Goodness knows what prompted her pen and ink drawing called The Butler, in which the waistcoated servant is holding a maid round the waist while she vomits on the floor in a graphic Steadman manner.
Her work is not for sissies. It is raw, grown-up and uncompromising, leaving one with a slightly uneasy feeling, and yet, one is drawn into it with a Balthusian, almost voyeuristic, fascination. The line between child and adult is often blurred, further confusing the sexual undertones, which may, or may not, be there in the eye of the viewer. Her drawings of Dog Women are a trifle confounding, particularly as she explains, ‘To be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden; that has very little to do with it. In these pictures every woman’s a dog woman, not downtrodden, but powerful. To be bestial is good. It’s physical. Eating, snarling, all activities to do with sensation are positive. To picture a woman as a dog is utterly believable.’ We will have to take her word for that.
Marlborough Fine Art
Until 27 October 2018