Hiding in plain sight: Paula Rego murals at the National Gallery

 

DSC03553 rego murals copy.jpgWhat a surprise to find these hiding on the back wall of the restaurant in the Sainsbury wing, a space that seems too low for them. Or does the feeling of spatial uncertainty spring from the intricate jokes buried in Rego’s teeming images, expressed in the alarming range of sizes she likes to play with, never more than here? There are two main populations, oversized figures from the artist’s childhood or 19th century Portugal—I can’t tell which—and another set who’ve shrunk to smaller than dwarves’ tininess under the influence of minute stories on blue Portuguese tiles which keep turning up, leftovers from an earlier stage when Rego thought she would paint the whole scene to look as if they were blue and white tiles.

DSC03555 copy.jpgIn the end the colour scheme is stranger and more complicated than that, something close to grisaille, mainly grey, bronze and white, bronze the odd one out, like a dark flesh tone applied to figures mimicking larger than life-size sculptures in metal. These choices are partly a kind of tactfulness, not intruding too aggressively on what goes on in the room—servers and diners occupy an intermediate position between the big and small people of the mural—and a way of making clear that they’re depictions that don’t want to compete with reality.

DSC03558 copy.jpgToward the final section on the far right, tile-coloured but not tile-seeming, comes a crowded set of reminiscences of various paintings in the gallery, centuries and national schools thrown together, medieval subjects not painted medievally but in Rego-language, not banging into each other, but neatly stacked like memories in an attic or storeroom of art-historical motifs. Who is the bricoleur who could make connected sense of all this flotsam? Is that precisely Rego’s gift?

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The range of colours gets richer the longer you study it, as in the grisailles of Rembrandt or Bruegel. And the animals that always carry some of the moral in Rego are not missing. They are given a large part but not a full-size one; we find them everywhere, lurking in corners and hanging around at the edges. A largish toad is my favourite, and momentarily I have lost him. Many cranes slide elusively round columns, and the smallest spaces of all are packed with Aesop or similar stories, a wealth of which you will not reach the bottom.

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Paula Rego was the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London, 1989-90.  The mural, completed in 1990, is called Crivelli’s Garden, said to be inspired by one painting in particular, The Madonna of the Swallow (it’s quite a puzzle to find the resemblances) and populated, according to the artist, by people who worked at the gallery and are shown playing the parts of saints.

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.

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Paula Rego drawings at Marlborough London, Albemarle Street W1 until 27 October

All too human at Tate Britain

Francis Bacon, one of the key painters in this exhibition, took the critic David Sylvester to see the Soutine landscapes at the Redfern Gallery because they had shown him how he wanted to paint at that moment. Some of the links that matter most in this exhibition are intuitional and will burst upon you, not argue their way into your head. So the connection between Bacon and Soutine, who inhabit adjacent rooms in the layout, is there in a visceral love of paint, though Soutine’s is thick and Bacon’s is wonderfully thin at this point; is there also in the abruptness with which they broach emotions, Bacon with a howling maw that is also a cultural reference (to Eisenstein), Soutine with faceless animal carcasses (flesh of a terrible directness). Flesh is the subject, encountered in a treed baboon (another awful view of teeth inside the head) and a cornered dog.

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Flesh appears too in the strongest F. N. Souzas, like the Crucifixion where Christ’s body is also the tree and the cross, sprouting thorns from legs and arms as well as its head. Two attackers, or more likely supporters, are also liberally thorned. In fact very little space is left on the surface for anything that is not thorn. Even Souza’s signature is prickly, something to steer clear of. The catalogue makes much of Souza’s outcast status as an immigrant, and he did eventually flee Britain for New York, but contextualisation can go too far, and coming after Bacon, we don’t find Souza’s an outlandishly alienated vision. There’s also an eerie link in their gravitation to Catholic themes (Souza’s family Goan and devout), only to distort them, of course.

Coldstream comes next, like an icy bath. I seem to remember that Souza sampled the Slade but it didn’t agree with him. If different ways of paying attention to the flesh are a thread running through the whole, Coldstream and his students represent an incredibly strange strand. For me his endless measurements trying to get sizes and relations exactly right, and marking each estimate with a little cross, produce some unusually dead results. A big nude in the exhibition is awkward overall, but full of interest when you focus on details. It is hardly credible that Coldstream thought he was serving truth by not moving pieces of furniture out of his compositions when they got in the way. He must surely have followed this principle selectively, and even then can you really call it a composition if it must obey prior placements as if they were divine laws?

His student Euan Uglow carried this idea of truth even further, and spent seven years on a painting of one of his students–in a sports jersey and pink tights–lying on and half-obscuring a bold pattern designed by Uglow. The result (finally finished?) is so bland we are fascinated by where all the careful thinking can have gone.

Next comes Bomberg, a rambunctious corrective. He is the first of three reprises that punctuate the exhibition, a brilliant way of startling us with a new role or a new approach to painting which would have less effect if Bomberg, Bacon and Freud had each been presented just once in the sequence. This is Bomberg the teacher, seen too in his students. There’s a violent landscape by Dennis Creffield, with an absurdly exact note of its location (The Isle of Dogs seen from Greenwich Observatory) which sets us scrambling to find all its parts. And a blotchy nude by Dorothy Mead, the nearest approach to Cubism in the show.

The most serious consequence of David Bomberg’s teaching, many would agree, is seen in the work of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who in the immediate aftermath of the teaching took his idea of the spirit in the mass to extreme lengths in canvases where the paint lies so thick that it seems to thrust itself into the room and defies you to find distinct forms in it. Paint is the subject and content of these paintings, sensuous enough to feel something like flesh.

Paradoxically, when Auerbach gets further from Bomberg, the teacher’s influence becomes more visible, in urban landscapes centred around Mornington Crescent station.

In the largest room of all, Freud reappears, moving away from the smoothness of finish we saw around the time he taught with Coldstream, toward an equally exaggerated intensity of attention, now expressed in thicker paint and ultra-visible brushstrokes. Here are the famous nudes whose flesh goes on and on, changing colour monotonously, following what imperative–just to demonstrate fierce mental concentration, which will exhaust sitter or lie-er and viewer alike? The great example of the new, larger minuteness in this enormous room devoted to Freud’s production from the late 1970s to the 1990s is a maniacal portrait of two species of house plant which fills twenty square feet of canvas from top to bottom, and makes us perceive Freud in that moment as a close inheritor of the Pre-Raphaelites.

We’ve been set up to forget the fact that Bacon too suffered a great transversal of values in which his subjects became sensuous male nudes, or amputated sections of them, like sausages that have split their skins and begun spilling out. Paint is thicker, silkier, and runs on for longer uninterrupted.

Of all the painters in the exhibition Michael Andrews and R. B. Kitaj are least well served, partly by being forced into the same room. But Kitaj leads well into Paula Rego, present in five giant pastels, a big watercolour drawing and an older oil of great human interest.

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The three Rego pastels ‘based’ on Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode have pride of place and fill a whole wall. Hogarth is exploded to many times his original size and introverted to domestic privacies where someone has turned over a stone and let the pullulating life spill out. Commentators have said that Hogarth’s humour is missing: instead, pure black comedy with monstrous men like babies, grandmothers full of venom and furniture that has the power to thwart, the only salvation lying in the brio (especially the bursts of colour) with which it is recorded.

In the last room of all, four impressive women, two of whom stand out: Jenny Saville with the sideways head of a gigantic baby, not really a baby but bald and pink like one and nightmarish to inspect close up; and Cecily Brown, new to me, the actual daughter of David Sylvester and the spiritual daughter of Willem de Kooning. Boy with a Cat does have a naked human figure of a kind and a whole background of cats, but it is really just an exuberant explosion of paint that leaves patient observation gaping helplessly.

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The way to visit this exhibition is to let it unfold in front of you, even wash over you, not that it is a mindless journey or an assorted jumble, but that the paintings have more to say to each other than such collections usually do, and that some of the oddest conjunctions could turn out to bear the best fruit, not perhaps immediately. Both the sequence and the hubbub of the whole make it clear that British figurative painting of this period has not become old hat or lost its power to engage viewers deeply.