Full of masterpieces: Paula Rego at the Tate Britain revue

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The Victorian saying “every picture tells a story” is true for the works of Paula Rego, but it is only part of the truth. Rego said she hopes and expects that when people look at her photos, “things will come out that I’m not even aware of.” And it’s also true: every wonderful picture tells so many stories, and is so loaded with innuendos and overtones, that no one, including its creator, can know everything that is going on.

This is certainly the case with many works in the Rego retrospective at Tate Britain. All notable painters and sculptors are, of course, sui generis. They don’t follow the rules; instead, they put together a new set tailored to their own creative personalities. So the show, in addition to revealing Rego’s greatness (at least to those who weren’t already aware of it), also asks a question: what kind of artist is she?

Biographically and aesthetically, Rego is a hybrid. Born and raised in Portugal, she attended art school in London and spent most of her long life (she was born in 1935) in Britain. I once asked her if she felt more Portuguese or British. She replied, “I really am both, exactly both.”

In addition, she worked against the grain of both cultures. Rego arrived in this country in 1951 and studied art à la Slade, which was then dominated by the doctrines of austere and truthful naturalism instilled by the principal, William Coldstream.

Up to a point, she accepted Coldstream’s advice to always paint what she knew and loved. Thus, in 1954, tackling the favorite subject of a student composition – “Under Milk Wood” by Dylan Thomas – she turned to Portuguese cuisine. The award-winning result is one of the first images from the Tate show.

Rego’s individuality is already there in germ: she tells a story, visually, but transposes it into her own experience. No one would look at this painting would associate it with Dylan Thomas or Wales, although they can relate these sturdy women with gigantic hands, the dead chicken they hold and the eggs they fry with Picasso or Velazquez. She started out in Hispanic-British sensitivity, and so she stayed.

If Rego’s late style was already implied at first, however, there was a long and complex evolution before she reached full visual maturity. His photos from the 1960s, after his marriage and his return to Portugal, had nothing to do with Coldstream’s scrutiny of the world at large. Indeed, they were hardly figurative. These little-known works are the major revelation of the Tate show: full of quivering bowels, anger and an atmosphere of threat. The title and visceral imagery of “Salazar Vomiting the Homeland” (1960) are quite close to Alan Davie’s messy organic abstraction; others are reminiscent of the wild comedy of Picasso’s “Franco’s Dream and Lie” (1937). All express their fury and disgust at the fascist dictatorship that then reigned over his native country.

In the 1970s, Rego returned to Britain and began painting intricate visual fantasies with a children’s storybook touch about them. ‘Aida’ (1983) involves giant rabbits, monkeys and crocodiles, as well as various cartoon characters dressed in ancient Egyptian clothes. The idiom by which it is best known only appeared in the late 1980s, when Rego was in his fifties.

A masterpiece of the time like “Les belles” (1987) has a lot in common with its pupil “Under Milk Wood”, in that it is based on a literary source: the play by Jean Genet on two servants who murder their mistress and her daughter. But Rego did not portray the violent ending, but the situation that led to it. The grim scene takes place in a lush 1950s interior like a set from a Buñuel movie, with – bizarre twist – a pet pig in the corner.

As you cycle through the show, Rego’s work continues to get bigger and more subtle. In the 1990s, she discovered her ideal medium, which turned out to be pastel (the reason being that, as Rego noted, she is not really a painter but a “designer”). This gives a nice soft and shimmering surface to works such as ‘Angel’ (1998) and ‘War’ (2003).

Many of his finest works are truly gigantic drawings, the size of a wall, but with all the force of a painting. They are also made from a live model, of a real person whom the artist painstakingly portrays – but, so to speak, “in his character”. So she has come full circle: returning Slade and Coldstream’s meticulous attention to what was in front of it.

Rego’s work is so rich that this great exhibition is not yet big enough. In particular, he has too few of his fingerprints. Rego is an artist, like her hero Goya, whose brilliance is at full power in black and white. So if you want to see Rego’s full story, also visit the Etchings, Lithographs and Aquatints Study at the Cristea Roberts Gallery, 43 Pall Mall.


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