PAULA REGO

Paula Rego, ‘The Family’ (1988)

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.

Paula Rego, ‘Salazar Vomiting the Homeland’ (1960).

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.

Paula Rego, ‘The Barn’ (1994)

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.

Paula Rego, ‘The Policeman’s Daughter’ (1987)

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.

Paula Rego, ‘Dog Woman’ (1994)

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”.

JAMES TOWER

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I caught up with the centenary exhibition of James Tower’s work at the Victoria Gallery, Bath, by chance after seeing a tweet and went to see it at the weekend. There’s a good collection of his ceramics, which I knew about, and his paintings, drawings and sculpture, which I didn’t.

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His shapes and marks show the influence of his childhood by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. “This is a landscape of long silent marshes,” he said, “Where the sky seems to dominate the grey-green distance. There are few trees or hills. The forms that engage the eye are the small ones of the beach and the tidal wave. Shells, particularly the bivalves, oyster, mussel and razor shell. The flattened fish of the estuary, plaice, flounder and ray.”

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He studied at the Royal Academy and the Slade, then, training to be a teacher at the Institute of Education in 1949, he came under the influence of the potter William Newland and decided that ceramics offered a better means of artistic expression. He attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts part-time under Dora Billington, which gave him excellent technical instruction, though it was, in his view, aesthetically conservative.

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The Central encouraged a wide range of ceramic expression at the time. The artist-potters, Margaret Hine and Maggie Angus Berkowitz, were Tower’s contemporaries, while more traditional tableware was being made by John Solly, Innes Reich and Doreen Lambert. Tower regarded clay as a medium of exploration and was never a potter, though he later ran the pottery department at Corsham.

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His worked derived from vernacular European pottery and Picasso’s ceramics, which were so startling when they were first shown in Britain, but he quickly went beyond both, creating intriguing conversations between monochrome surface and organic form.

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SLADE POSTGRADUATE SHOW, 2018

I caught the postgraduate degree show just before it closed on Saturday and I’ve picked out a few artists that I liked. My selection doesn’t pretend to be representative and it’s influenced by the ideas I formed on the open day last year, where I saw more easel painters than I expected. There weren’t so many among this years’ graduates, and Rodrigo Arteaga‘s installation (below) is more typical of the graduating students of 2018.

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Rodrigo Artega

Antonia Showering referenced Gaugin and Munch in her ambiguous, painterly images.

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Antonia Showering

Elisa Carutti‘s quasi-abstraction recalled Bacon, more in her brush work than her subject matter, though the tortuous forms suggest Bacon as well.

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Elisa Carutti

Yijia Yang made a grid of quirky, faux naive drawings that don’t indicate fully what she does in her paintings .

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