Magazine article The Spectator

Subversive Narrative

Magazine article The Spectator

Subversive Narrative

Article excerpt

Paulo Rego Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, until 30 December; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, 1 February-25 May 2008

Paula Rego had a retrospective at Tate Liverpool a decade ago and a big show in her native Portugal, where she is properly regarded as the country's greatest living artist, but both exhibitions seem niggardly in comparison with the more than 200 works shown in some 14 rooms at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Even to someone who has made a close study of her work, this is a revelatory, even overpowering, display of both her versatility and her passion. The exhibition has been curated by Marco Livingstone who, in his elaborate catalogue, includes as well as his own lucid introduction, refreshingly free of artspeak, a fascinating interview with the artist. Rego says of the ever-present threads in her oeuvre: 'I think bullying and revenge run all the way through. Bullying people taking advantage of other people. The overdog and the underdog . . . [My] childhood in Portugal is also very important . . . power games, or whatever you'd call it. I think there has always been a sort of exuberance . . . that has something to do with sexuality.' Given these views it is both remarkable, and entirely understandable, that she has risen to her well-deserved success as an exclusively narrative artist. Rarely has that awful cliché that every picture tells a story been so apt. The majority of her stories are deeply subversive, as befits someone whose childhood was dominated by parents and aunts who vied with each other to tell her the creepiest and scariest stories. But, Rego being Rego, the most innocent of stories, from nursery rhymes to Peter Pan, emerge laden not with sinister undertones but with frequently shocking overtones.

One of the bonuses of the Madrid show is the selection of early paintings and drawings dating from the 1950s when she was barely in her twenties. Some artists, such as Picasso, constantly change their styles, while other sail serenely through life endlessly repeating themselves. Rego manages, with extreme sophistication, to change her style -- and her media -- while being entirely consistent in her narrative power. 'Celebration' (1953) is a wonderful, satirical account of a drunken birthday party where the celebrants, in various states of somnolence and incoherence, with their mask-like faces reminiscent of James Ensor, are clearly the ancestors of the lithographs she published this year to illustrate a short story by the Portuguese writer João de Melo entitled O Vinho (Wine).

An even earlier work, a quite savage, heavy black pencil drawing of 1952, 'Dog Woman', re-emerges in the 'Dog Women' series of paintings in the mid-1990s, an unforgettable example of reverse anthropomorphism. …

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