On ViewTate Britain
July 7 – October 24, 2021
Cristea Roberts Gallery
Paula Rego: An Enduring Journey
July 8 – September 11, 2021
Viewing Paula Rego’s “Abortion series” (1998–99) at the Tate Britain, I thought of Lucia Berlin’s short story “Tiger Bites”, which concerns a 19-year-old divorcée bullied into having an illegal abortion. What Berlin devastatingly conveys through words, Rego illustrates with equally heart-stopping poignancy in this group of pastels made as a response to Portugal’s failed referendum to legalize abortion in 1998. Rego contorts women’s bodies like balloons deflated on the floor or slumped against furniture. In one particularly harrowing work, a woman is seen on a bed holding her legs apart as if in stirrups. Her face forced into a seemingly emotionless mask, she stares piercingly past the frame, while the red and black rims of household buckets beneath her suggest danger like the coloured bands on a venomous snake. Rego’s handling of this charged subject matter is so acute that at times it feels as if the walls are closing in around you.
This series is one of the many highlights of Rego’s much lauded retrospective, which maps the artist’s life-long interrogation of the complex psychological ordeals and paradoxes faced by women and girls, with an emphasis placed on larger-scale painting and pastels from her early and mid-career. In a work like Interrogation (1950), painted when Rego was just 15 years old, you see that she has always made her artistic talent serve her themes and narratives, rather than allowing virtuosity to become the focus. It is because of this that a career-defining painting like the monumental The Dance (1988) remains urgent today, even given the time elapsed since its creation. If nothing more, the Tate show succeeds in demonstrating that Rego is one of the finest, most idiosyncratic artists of her generation.
But in terms of giving a fuller account of her oeuvre, printmaking is sorely underrepresented, and the failure of the retrospective to capitalize on its institutional position and give greater public visibility to this medium is disheartening. Especially because, as Berlin, or Alice Munro, or Joyce Carol Oates have done for the short story genre, Rego shows us that there is much more variety and richness to be gleaned from printmaking than is generally appreciated.
In Paula Rego: An Enduring Journey, an eye-opening retrospective of prints and select works on paper concurrently on view at Cristea Roberts Gallery, Rego demonstrates a preeminent ability to get the most out of the constraints imposed by printmaking, a by-product of which is her dexterity in the manipulation of line.
“I love the amazing prints of the commedia dell’arte by Tiepolo, and Claude Gillot’s drawings of commedia dell’arte and Punchinello,” Rego has said. “They’re about the line, a sensitive and expressive line that conveys complex feelings,” she goes on, and indeed she has masterfully replicated this feat in the widely heralded series “Nursery Rhymes” (1989), selections of which are seen in both retrospectives.
In Three Blind Mice II (1989), a woman aping the pose of a French revolutionary in a history painting has just cut the tails off three mice, as if carrying out an act of liberation. The scenario is grotesquely dark, but it’s the woman’s face that commands attention. Lines are short and stabbing, mirroring the vengeful suffering she’s just inflicted. Likewise, in the unsettling Polly Put the Kettle On (1989), Rego has transformed the two faces of Polly and her friend, little girls playing the dutiful hosts of their tea party, into towering grotesques that draw our gaze. One, carved with rigid lines and sinisterly accentuated by Rego’s use of varying tones of aquatint, the other almost angelic in comparison, made up of svelte lines that web across her face separating pale areas of aquatint like veins. “Sadism,” said Rego of this work, “is full of picaresque possibilities.”
The works in this series prey on our childhood. We likely encountered illustrated versions of the nursery rhymes Rego draws upon at a young age, and they formed some part of our earliest understandings of morality and gender roles. By entangling the familiar characters in the trappings of perversity, dominance, and submission, or showing them in fits of violence, Rego reaches through to our inner child, forcing us to question what exactly it was we were being taught.
In Baa, Baa, Black Sheep (1989), we see this in the way Rego’s little girl stands in the embrace of a sheep perched on a stool, towering over her. At first, it looks like they might suddenly turn and begin to dance. It’s paternal, even endearing. Until you notice that the girl’s other arm is rising, as if to reach for the sheep’s neck, hand open and ambiguously suggestive in motive. Is it defense or attack; could there even be a sexual element?
Rego’s wickedly acerbic humor is a throughline of An Enduring Journey. Beloved institutions from Hogarth to Peter Pan are imbued with the artist’s weaponized and riotous sense of comedy. But Rego never allows her approach to become crass, as evidenced by the defiant, innuendo-laden Ride a Cock-horse (1989), a hand-colored etching and aquatint that shows a woman riding a horse, legs bare and unapologetic about her sexuality, while a group of nuns gawk at her. In Pendle Witches (1996), inspired by the poems of Blake Morrison, Rego hilariously mocks the absurdity of the 1612 Pendle Hill witch trials by casting one of the alleged witches as a beleaguered woman in a swimming cap and one-piece bathing suit, employing color solely on the swimming suit to emphasize the inanity of man’s cruelty.
Although An Enduring Journey will likely remain less visible than its counterpart at the Tate, those that do see it and revisit the Tate retrospective will appreciate that a persuasive argument can be made for printmaking as Rego’s principal medium. A group of recent works in ink and watercolor, seen towards the end of the Tate Britain retrospective, makes this very clear. Here, Rego’s masterly manipulation of line plays an increasingly visible role, suggesting that the artist sees little difference between apparently disparate parts of her oeuvre. With a proper appreciation of Rego’s printmaking, the graphic qualities camouflaged in her paintings and pastels can only become more visible and more enticing.