Paula Rego is another outlier in the territory of contemporary art. She is Portuguese but came to London to study and now lives there. In some way she is more like a nineteenth-century novelist than a twenty-first century painter. She seems drawn to other painters for their subject matter rather than their handling of paint. Hogarth, Goya and James Ensor turn up in her comments about her own work, which often takes a literary work as the starting point, The Sin of Father Amaro (a scandalous Portuguese novel of 1875), Jane Eyre, Portuguese folk tales, English nursery rhymes, or a dark play by the British-Irish writer Martin McDonagh.
Rego always distorts and updates the originals, infiltrating them with material from her Portuguese childhood deflected through Freud. The grotesque tendency already present in the older writer is raised to a higher pitch. She delights in elements which don’t fit and will never be comfortably assimilated, like suggestions of a Crucifixion in a child’s game on a beach, or a Pieta among the detritus of a box room. Like Bruegel she crams too much into her paintings: one story will rarely suffice and intriguing sub-stories fill up the edges.
There have been unexpected shifts in her career, as in the late 1980s when her husband Victor Willing, also a painter (they met as students at the Slade; the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is the best place to see his work), was dying, she deserted the folk-material and turned to everyday domestic scenes rendered in flat acrylic of muted, gray-infused hues. The unnerving surreal element of the tales hadn’t disappeared, just retreated out of easy view. Ordinary encounters of family members breathed menace, and predators in frumpy dresses or business suits waited for the right moment to spring.
Two of the major shifts in Rego’s method and technique seem to have happened almost by chance: when she stopped smoking, the hand set free could hold the board and she took up drawing more enthusiastically. Finding it awkward to draw herself in complex positions (as The Dog Woman) she recruited her husband’s carer as a model, and observation entered the pictures with new urgency.
In 1994 pastel burst upon the scene as a primary medium for Rego, no longer just a convenience in underdrawing, and has been her preferred medium ever since. Pastel is closer to drawing and makes a violent intensity of colour much easier to achieve, something Rego evidently felt was missing before. Before long some of her pastels reached greater dimensions than her paintings ever had, exceeding 6 feet by 9 in triptychs of the early 2000s. In these gigantic expanses of paper, by far the biggest works in this medium I have ever seen, the monsters return, animal hybrids from fairy tales or primitive religion, and human forms like stuffed animals or vegetable growths.
But all this lies far in the future. What got me started on Paula Rego was the current exhibition of 65 of her drawings at Marlborough London. It covers a relatively short span, 1980-2001, but gives plenty of scope to the fertility of her imagination. The earliest and most delightful examples show animal-headed human figures, more like illustrations in a children’s book than those ominous beings on the walls of Egyptian tombs. But the creatures threaten or crowd each other and collide with toy soldiers half their size. These drawings are forerunners of the apocalyptic opera series (Aida, Carmen, Rigoletto) in acrylic on paper, still looking drawn not painted, like nightmarish comic books 7 feet high where chaos reigns, with pharaohs, crocodiles, local children and bearded female wizards running across the page in uneven tiers. Disproportionate sizes feel relatively innocent here, but loom larger in later Rego compositions as intimidation and enslavement.
Another drawing in staccato technique like the aftermath of a blast (a detail above) shows a ballerina surrounded by gesturing animals, especially a lobster with raised claws. It dares us to make sense of scattered marks all mastered by centrifugal urges. Even in one of the most composed or statuesque drawings, which shows a girl about to pluck the feathers of a great bird growing from her lap like a mythical hybrid from Ovid, she is both quelling a rival and becoming something unforeseen. Does the cadet in a nearby drawing dominate his sister who is cleaning his boot, or does she emasculate him by keeping him still?
The battered drawing of the Dog Woman was pivotal in Rego’s career. She tried to draw herself in a mirror and found there were parts she just couldn’t see, and from that moment on, live models began to play a larger role in her work. The dog-woman is a compelling translation of the mythic hybrid to a degraded but still powerful creature, making character from humiliation energetically seized and proclaimed. Rego never lets go of the relation between human beings and animals, in its embarrassing nearness and its abysses of otherness.
There are revealing photos of Rego’s studio set up for one of her large compositions, which show a cascade of actual models, but not live ones, in the very layout familiar to us from the painting. These are the stuffed grotesques that Rego began to use to represent the more monstrous participants in the story. It is disconcerting to learn that her supremely fertile imagination leans on such props. But should it be? Isn’t there something wonderful in replicating the unpredictable creases in the dummy-octopus or the sagging of canvas ticking in the scarecrow’s face? In the later Rego the most fantastic elements are fanatically accurate. This kind of crazy faithfulness would make sense to Bruegel or Bosch. The two versions of the artist’s studio in the Marlborough exhibition are more prosaic than the photos, but show a place similarly full, like the paintings, of discordant life, a place in which the subjects have wills of their own and sometimes push each other out of the way.
Among the most powerful drawings are the series on the touchy (especially in Portugal) subject of Abortion. Even these are not unambiguous. The postures of sexual pleasure and of torment are almost mistakable for each other, momentarily. Here is a subject which does not need to be eked out or amplified by a wealth of surrounding detail.
The exhibition verges nearest to the heroic pastels in the largest drawing on view, The Recruit, a neat and self-contained anecdote employing some of the reversals of psychological and sexual valency that Rego enjoys. The woman is shorter and stronger than the man, reveals more of her flesh (a vulnerability) but wears a uniform and carries a stick. The man is larger, but his bigness is pitiful and his gesture unwittingly defensive. How is it that something so absurdly exaggerated seems so evidently true?
Naturally, some viewers trace all these revenges and rivalries to the artist’s early experience. But there is a complete disconnect between her recounting of relations in her own family and families as she portrays them. One of the most poignant of all is the Pillowman—Fisherman series (not in the exhibition) where Rego came to think halfway through that the Pillowman represented her much loved father, whom she had never portrayed until then in her work. In the left-hand wing of the Fisherman triptych below, the Pillowman, from Martin McDonagh’s horrific play by that name, is showing a small girl an illustrated book. Paula Rego recognises here the treasured experience of her father reading Dante to her, as he did, setting her on the course her life would follow thereafter. This panel of the triptych incorporates the three parts of the Divine Comedy in an S-curve from top left to bottom right, an order reversed from the way Dante tells it. It is one of Rego’s strangest and boldest transpositions, to represent her father as the hideous Pillowman, a floppy and malleable dummy who kills his numerous child-victims with kindness.
Paula Rego drawings at Marlborough London, Albemarle Street W1 until 27 October