Paula Rego’s stories drawn & painted

0 pillowman2.jpegPaula 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.

1a folk tales.jpgBut 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.

2b girl giraffe.jpgAnother 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?

4 soldiers daughter.jpgThe 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.

5b dog woman.jpgThere 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.

6b artist in studio.jpgAmong 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.

7a abortion.jpgThe 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?

8 recruit.jpgNaturally, 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

Two exhibitions in Chichester


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The distinguishing feature of Chichester cathedral is a collection of modern art, meaning mostly pieces from the period 1957-77 when Walter Hussey was Dean and patronised living artists. These are scattered around the building like the hidden prizes in a children’s game. They make an unorthodox focus for a visit and aren’t picked out on the free guide distributed at the entrance, or known to the friendly volunteers who each recommend their own favourite features to visitors.

Ian Nairn wrote the West Sussex half of the Pevsner for Sussex where he claims that Chichester is the outstanding example of a typically English cathedral. Of course Nairn is famous for finding irreplaceable uniqueness in ordinary buildings, a fruitful kind of delusion that his readers willingly fall in with. Chichester is quintessentially nondescript, but it is his. He describes its steeple looming over the surrounding landscape with the devotion of a native.

But he is wrong: the beauty of this cathedral as a background for twentieth century art is its self-effacing ordinariness. In the neutral setting the works count as they never could in Lincoln or York. Hussey’s favourite artists are still figurative — modernists who straddle an important divide, but remain thrillingly heretical in a Gothic building.

Hans Feibusch is a fascinating figure, a Jewish refugee from Nazism who made his name with large murals on religious subjects in Christian churches bombed in the war, where his weird colours make the familiar subjects into conflagrations. Feibusch’s Baptism of Christ by the font in Chichester is painted on canvas instead of the wall and isn’t big enough to take charge of the space.

I have to do some detective work to see a Graham Sutherland at the end of the aisle ahead of me, too small to catch my eye the first time round. I find a postcard of it in another building, the shop, and retrace my steps, crossing a quad to find it. Because I now know what it looks like, I can see it staring me in the face. It’s a Noli me tangere which Sutherland has twisted into his characteristic brand of grotesque by putting Christ halfway up a stair clinging to a building and Mary Magdalene contorted on the ground but craning upward. Like Feibusch Sutherland brings colour harmonies wonderful in themselves, but improbable in the context, to dislodge expectation.


The retrochoir at Chichester is the one real architectural inspiration here, a perfect space lurking between the choir and the Lady Chapel and functionless for centuries, until the cult of the local saint was reinstituted with the help of some modern art in the twentieth century. This includes a large German tapestry on the theme of St Richard. There’s a very good label explaining it as full of symbols, all made unrecognisable by representing them as fragments of rock crystal, art hiding its spiritual teaching in ambiguous forms. I thought it mainly a crowd of angels with plant shapes at the sides and exploding flowers, all forms that had to force themselves into being. I didn’t detect the sea or the lotus or the fire until they were pointed out, or the serpent climbing the cross. It took a long time to produce and it mesmerised me.

DSC00479.jpgIn a corner of the space was a little model of a piece of very Baroque sculpture whose swirls of drapery were hard to pick out against the dark background. Improbably high overhead stood the sculpture itself. Can the sculptor have had any idea where his finely wrought work was going to end up? Without the model to point you toward it, would anyone ever notice it?

As time went on your eyes got better at picking out the newer art concealed among the architectural shrubbery. The main goal of the day was an exhibition in a museum, and it just happened that the cathedral lay across the path to the real goal and the true museum. In retrospect the cathedral’s kind of display came to represent nature, or offered something like finding rare minerals washed up on a beach, objects camouflaged just enough by the way they partook of their setting to let you think that you were their discoverer.

The cathedral, framed on one side by its own wilderness, was joined abruptly to the town on the other side, whose West Street ran right along the whole north flank of the building. It was a miniature model of a city left intact by time, which seemed very normal and which only experience taught you to recognise as miraculous.

The museum lay in the heart of a quadrant of the regular town that replicated the form of the whole, scaled down a stage or two. Like the cathedral the gallery was a strange hybrid, the grandest eighteenth-century house in Chichester (i.e., not that grand) yoked to a modern extension by a Scandinavianly-inclined architect (not that modern). It was a discord that grew on you until it seemed a harmony.

It could almost function as a definition of childishness to be unable to wait a decent interval for something you want, or until, say, its time came round naturally in the calendar. I knew that the Bomberg exhibition I had come here to see was going to arrive in London before very long anyway, but after chafing for weeks, I finally decided I couldn’t wait. The only rational excuse, a flimsy one, was a little display of Paula Rego’s drawings which ran alongside Bomberg, certainly not enough by itself to justify the commotion of this trip.

Maybe the imaginary nature of the journey made it almost metaphysically necessary. I started with the Bomberg, which didn’t disappoint, enhanced by the unlikelihood of finding this very urban, Jewish artist in Chichester. The exhibition made sense of some of his least accessible works, like Jujitsu, which was shown as if occurring in stages, first in a geometrical tangle which remained a three-dimensional space, like some labyrinth of Hebrew thought, before it turned right before your eyes into the flat pattern of the later painting, which preserved a clue to its source in the absurd name Jujitsu, pointing you to the gym in Whitechapel where Bomberg had made the first sketches.

I broke the exhibition in the middle, for even a small display can seem big, or too big for devouring all in one go, if you are looking too hard. With hindsight, I see I was lucky to break it where I did (though in a sense I had no choice) because late Bomberg is another universe and ideally requires a starting over.

My holiday from Bomberg was not rushing outside for real air, but more paintings, the permanent collection at Pallant House, all British or even English, all from the twentieth century, beginning with Sickert and carrying on to painters like Kitaj, Michael Andrews and Peter di Francia, anathema to me until almost this very year now. Imagine liking the 1940s 50s and 60s best of all! What has come over me? Something about the local and the inconspicuous, about things that all belong together and would almost prefer to be overlooked so that they could get on with the business of looking. At Pallant House they are often small scale, the Sutherlands for instance, a gnarled crucifixion, or even more wonderful, a Thorn Head like Blake’s magnified cross section of the head of a flea with the biting machinery exposed, like a Christ who has internalised the crown of thorns, inviting his suffering inside, appropriate in Chichester and in Walter Hussey’s own collection.

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The Chichester gallery calls itself a collection of collections. So far for me two of the collectors stand out, Hussey and Colin St John Wilson, architect of the British Library, one of my favourite 20c public buildings. Sandy Wilson (as we learned to call him when he was external examiner at the architectural school where I taught) also designed the bold (for Chichester) extension to Pallant House (no longer big enough, I heard just the other day). I try to imagine how Hussey and Wilson might have got along. Their collections accord wonderfully well, like the two buildings that don’t look as if they are going to at first.

Wilson’s pictures are larger; the biggest room in the extension was purpose-built for them, where they hang like the masterpieces in the big gallery at the Wallace Collection. One of the most interesting pictures here is a big Kitaj of Wilson and his wife (also an architect) called ‘The Architects’. Does one like this intermarriage of the building, the collector and the collection? Does anyone find it claustrophobic, as my wife did Chichester when we brought students here ten years ago? Then I liked the place well enough, but didn’t appreciate it the way I do now, as something that keeps modestly cross-referencing itself to make a perfect little realm of art.

At this point I realised that to catch the last daylight for a walk in the town I needed to escape from the gallery into the streets and onto the walls, scaled down remnants in this human-scaled place. Even so, I was too late for the Octagon Chapel, an architectural curiosity, and for the grounds of the Priory with their own captive section of the town walls. Dusk was a show for my benefit and gave me just time to get back to the Gallery for the last part of Bomberg with its disturbing explosions of colour and form, and for the mildly disturbing apparition of a well-known critic many years my junior, who appeared twice looking pretty senior, and nervous before his lecture. I was the truant whose only responsibility lay with the paintings, so I got on with looking.