Women Biting Back: Obedience and Defiance. “I try and get justice for women... at least in the pictures. Revenge too.”
One of the most important artists living in Britain today, Paula Rego, is now in her 80s and living in London where she studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. A far cry from her birth, in mid 1930s Portugal, into a country ruled for decades by the self-appointed military dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, together with the Catholic Church.
Rego knew what it meant to live under an oppressive government – especially as a woman. She was politicised from an early age, growing up in a family critical of the political situation, and found an outlet in her paintings.
Full of vibrant sketches, detailed etchings, huge colourful paintings in a range of styles, and a lively documentary, this exhibition provided a rich and enjoyable experience, maybe even for those who don’t usually care much for paintings.
Spanning over fifty years of Rego’s international career, from the 1960s onwards, the images are subversive with a dark sense of humour. Her partly Disney-inspired painting style makes serious topics – such as gender discrimination, poverty, abortion, female genital mutilation, political tyranny and war – bearable and even fascinating to look at. Therein lies her genius, the fine balancing of ‘obedience and defiance’, of tackling controversial subjects with a light touch and bringing deep art historical awareness together with influences from pop culture. Which is to say Rego is a visual storyteller.
In an interview around the group show All Too Human at Tate Britain in 2018, Rego said:
“I read a lot of books, like Simone de Beauvoir, and they had a great influence on me. ... It was exciting to think that women could do what men could do. It felt just. I don’t use the ideas directly but I try and get justice for women... at least in the pictures. Revenge too.”
In Painting Him Out, Rego reverses the traditional relationship between a male artist and his female muse. The female artist here actively handles the male subject, covered by a drape, and passively stuck – alive or imagined – onto a canvas. Power roles are reversed in a room full of women observing, drawing or even pleasing themselves. It is a carefully arranged composition that guides the viewer’s eye in a dynamic rhythm across the page.
Rego’s curiosity in portraying women shows her intrigued by their experiences, good and bad, mischievous and seductive, cruel and compassionate. With mass media and art history so heavy with images of male camaraderie and passively posing (nude) women, it’s refreshing to see a painter of Rego’s calibre centring her images around active, strong-legged and misbehaving women.
In the abortion pictures, Rego vented her angry empathy for women going through the painful and unsafe trials of illegal abortions, when a referendum in 1998 had just ruled out the legalisation in Portugal.
Women are seen lying on sofas, crouching, cowering over buckets, looking straight at the viewer or not caring, and dealing with their pain. Untitled No. 4 shows a young woman in her school uniform, recovering. Image after image paints a compassionate picture of women’s age-old experiences of unwanted pregnancies, defiance of the stigma, sexual autonomy over their own bodies and describing moments of self-care.
Women may be suffering but they are the protagonists here. The empathy provoked by Rego’s paintings supported a successful second referendum in 2007, when abortion was finally legalised in Portugal. Literally rescuing lives.
Angel, the painting the SNGMA chose to illustrate the exhibition illustrate her themes: It portrays Rego’s reimagining of Amélia, a character from the 1875 novel, The Crime of Father Amaro by José Maria de Eça de Quierós. The story goes that she and the sly character of priest Amaro embark on a clandestine affair. This ends with Amélia dying a disgraced death at the childbirth of their illegitimate child and Amaro living on. Rego artfully reverses that.
Looking directly at the viewer, Amélia faces any opponent that comes her way with a sword and sponge in her hands, the instruments of Christ’s passion. Her gaze is confident, calm, and challenging.
She again manages to render acceptable a potentially threatening image, here of an armed, empowered woman, through the calm, almost friendly, composure of the figure and sheer beauty of the painting. Redefining the original story, by giving Amélia life and strength, with Father Amaro pathetically dwindling on other images. Amélia becomes guardian angel and powerful avenger of all women thus wronged. She heroically survives.
Rego’s paintings often seem like healing alchemy, giving pictorial justice to women across time and imagined spaces. She shows their many-faceted friendships, dealings with autonomy, deeper instincts and wonderfully complex relationships – all worth celebrating in these troubled, uncertain times.
Many people seem to think paintings are static objects, but as someone who regularly enjoys pushing paint across a page I feel nothing could be further from the truth. As the art historian James Elkin puts it: “Paint is liquid thought.”
Just how alive this process is will become obvious when you get to see Paula Rego’s paintings in the flesh.
Info: Mira Knoche is a Leith and Glasgow based visual artist, studying Painting & Printmaking at the Glasgow School of Art. She started WENCH, a womxn-led art and music collective last year, encouraging womxn to become loud and visible.
Paula Rego (b. 1935). Clockwise from top: Painting Him Out, pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 2011. Untitled No. 4, pastel on paper 1998. Angel, pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 1998. All Private collection © Paula Rego, courtesy of Marlborough, New York and London.