I was pointed at Rego’s work by my Drawing tutor who seemed to know intuitively the kind of image I’d find interesting. I’d never heard of her but her Dancing Ostriches will stay with me for a long time. [As if it weren’t obvious, the drawing on the left is my attempt at a copy]
From a 2016 BBC article accessed 07/04/19
These dancers are as far from Degas’ delicates as it’s possible to get, and although I have always liked his representations of ballet, they seem wispy and idealised next to Rego’s chunky, muscular, powerhouses of women. Not that Rego’s women are likely to turn up in the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake; these are the antithesis of ballet’s half-starved waifs, more like weight-lifters than dancers but still apparently ‘compliant’.
In her work women are strong but compliant, and they are ostriches, and they are children, scavenging for food, opening their dress to be shot. “Painting pictures is the part of you that’s a man,” Rego told her son. “It has the push, the thrust. Having babies and playing at house is… play acting. While doing a picture you are being yourself.”
Many of Rego’s women are posed legs splayed and I wonder which of her many troubles these images come from. The idea of having babies as play acting? The many abortions she had before finally having a child and marrying her partner? The ambivalence towards women’s role such that painting is about maleness. I’d guess at power and agency and the lack of that for women of her generation and a significant proportion of mine, but she’s not here to ask. She does talk about fear though and it seems to run through her life and her work:
In 1965, she said her work was about, “giving fear a face.” As a child she was scared of everything; as an adult she is scared of most things. “The devil, particularly. I saw him when I was… eight. Every Saturday at Fascist Youth they’d say: ‘Never look into a fire, you will see the face of the devil.’ And one night I heard footsteps, the door opened, and death came in. I ran into my parents’ room, but death came with me. So I remained afraid. Today, I still have bad dreams, but think less about death.” She pauses, smiling. “It’s not very nice to live inside my mind. I’d like not to have these dreams every night. I bought a dreamcatcher, but it does nothing to help. The only thing that does, is the work.”
As to her art, I’m drawn to the robustness of her drawings, the anatomical legitimacy that still leans on the side of description rather than diagram, and the raw realism of the content. There’s life in those women and they’re all but stills from a film such that they could move at any moment. The dresses are just as diaphanous as Degas’s tutus, more so in fact, but they also seem more tangible, more material and of our world, not that of paint. They’re also black which always, in theatre, film, and religion, signifies something dangerous and dark, whether of evil or of mood.
Sadly, Rego’s health seems to be declining. There may be no more of these images, no more rebellious commentary or fearsome stories.
These sketches were an attempt to ‘feel’ the shapes she makes in her dancers so as to gain a handle on their solidity and volume. It’s self-evident that this was not easy. Also that I still seem incapable of getting the whole of the intended image into the space available! Luckily, Rego is unlikely ever to see them.