Paula Rego followed a firm and undistracted figurative course through post-war fashions to become one of our greatest artists, standing head and shoulders above her contemporaries in subject matter, seriousness and technique. She was born in Lisbon in 1935 in the early days of the Salazar dictatorship, an only child in a liberal and Anglophile family. She described her upbringing as formal but mostly happy. They lived part of the year in Estoril, once a popular holiday resort much visited by Britons but now old-fashioned and abandoned. A mile along the coast in Cascais is the Paula Rego Museum, which, as it happens, was closed when we visited it a few years ago (as is often the case on holiday when you make spontaneous visits to art galleries on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday) so I was glad to spend the morning yesterday at Tate Britain’s Paula Rego retrospective.
Rego tells stories about oppression and liberation, of course, with violent and mysterious images, and it wasn’t surprising to discover that she was forty years in Jungian analysis. Her stories come from the same dark place as Grimm’s. She learned folk tales from her grandmother. She paints the sugar-coated nastiness of nursery rhymes.
The dreamlike quality of her pictures is heightened by the distortion of the figures, which makes adults look like children and uncanny. Her painting could be described as surrealist and she acknowledges the early influence of Miró, but it has little in common with Dali’s glib images or Magritte’s small jokes and it’s not really a good description.
Her stories are chamber operas performed in a small, oppressive picture space, but by the 1990s she had aquired the confidence to fill her paintings with more figures. The Barn (1994), a large and complex piece with children, animals, dolls and flowers, is unannotated and unexplained in the exhibition. The Return of the Native (1993) is in ink and wash but much bigger than any previous ink and wash drawing, 10 ft by 5 ft, its curious detail recalling Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, also in Tate Britain, which Rego must know well. She goes to the same mad and troubling places as Dadd, who painted it while he was in an asylum, but Rego has the sanity of a person relating a dream at breafast.
Much of her work is done in acrylic, which allows quicker working and produces stronger colours than oils. In the 1970s she was influenced by Arthur Rackham, who also illustrated fairy tales, and she adopted his black outline in most of her figures. Later she began to use pastels and her pictures took on a softer and more subdued tone, but they remained huge, and, dealing with abortion, became even more intense and visceral.
The Policeman’s Daughter (1987) and The Cadet and His Sister (1988) famously refer to the confluence of family and state power and have elements of sadism and fetishism as well. Rego is an artist of the unconscious and uncovers the psychic forces behind what appear at first to be merely political relations. There is always something ambiguous and unreachable in her pictures. Perhaps it’s not surprising that she describes herself as “a sort of Catholic”.