Paula Rego, The Maids, 1987, acrylic on canvas mounted on canvas, 213 x 244 cm, Collection particulière, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, © Paula Rego
The Musée de l’Orangerie is to hold a major exhibition devoted to Portuguese artist Paula Rego (born 1935) highlighting her work from the last thirty years. This anti-retrospective, which features drawings (ink, pastel…), engravings (etchings, aquatints…), paintings and sculptures, documents the artist’s extraordinary prodigality.
Paula Rego, Snare, 1987, acrylic on canvas mounted on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, Courtesy British Council Collection, © Paula Rego
While P. Rego is no stranger in France, where her work has been shown in Paris at the Calouste Gulbekian Foundation (in 1999 and 2012) and more recently at the Sophie Scheideker Gallery (in 2015 and 2018), the exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie must have come as a surprise to many. Her pictures are among those that leave a lasting impression, in the vein of the works of Max Beckmann or Paula Modersohn-Becker – the bodies she depicts are predominantly female, heavyset, and often frozen in unsettling attitudes. They wait, hesitate, and sometimes take on brutal attitudes, such as in The Family (1988), in which three apparently well-behaved sisters (as demonstrated by the girlish skirts, smiles and pink bow) appear to be pinning down their father onto the marriage bed. Women – rather than the woman – are a central topic in P. Rego’s work. Indeed, they present all kinds of women – little girls, young women, mature and elderly women – whose bodies are clearly not meant to cater to the male gaze. Her art is far from indulgent and does not seek photogenic affectedness: necks and calves are thick, bodies are firmly planted on stout legs, and grace is to be found where one least expects it.
Paula Rego, Little Miss Muffet I, 1989, etching and aquatint, 52 x 38 cm, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, © Paula Rego
Each section of the exhibition illustrates the various sources that P. Rego uses as inspiration, from the most ambiguous children’s classics (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pinocchio…) to classic literature from Portugal (The Crime of Father Amaro), France (The Unknown Masterpiece), or Britain (Jane Eyre). Jean Genet’s The Maids (1947) inspired her 1987 painting of the same name, in which implicit violence is muted by the thick curtains and dim lighting of the bourgeois boudoir in which it is set.
Paula Rego, Scavengers, 1994, pastel on paper, 120 x 160 cm, Collection particulière, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, © Paula Rego
The labels in the exhibition mention P. Rego’s “visceral and nuanced feminism”, although one cannot help but wonder if this is not an oxymoron. If anything, we believe that every aspect of the artist’s resolutely anachronic painting manifests a more than fierce vision, not of women, but of the way they are commonly depicted. It shows murderous Victorian heroines; little girl stranglers; witches revelling during the Sabbath; tutu-clad dancers with heavy, knobbly figures; an evil-plotting fairy with large, murderous hands. Even when these women are depicted as animals, they are not lithe cats but savage dogs. And they are not afraid to bite.1
Les Contes cruels de Paula Rego, from 17 October to 14 January 2019 at the musée de l’Orangerie (Paris, France).