Dame Paula Rego: Will Gompertz reviews Obediance and Defiance show in Milton Keynes. BBC News, Entertainment and Arts, June 2019
I’ve just watched the BBC’s 2017 documentary, Secrets and Stories, on Rego (which is due to expire in twelve days from now but just in case of a reprieve, this is the link https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08kz9qz/paula-rego-secrets-and-stories?xtor=ES-211-[23633_PANUK_DIV_25_ART_PaulaRego_Over35_Mopup]-20190623-[bbctwo_paularegosecretsandstories_factualarts]) and found my first speculations about the deeper issues referred to in short biographies to be both justified and deepened. Being born in Portugal into a world in which fascism and repression – particularly of women – meant much of what was real in terms of both politics and women’s lives was merely an undercurrent to the superficiality of conformity, and for Rego it was voiced in her paintings.
Having experienced an unspecified number of pregnancies and illegal abortions while at the Slade in London; something she claims – and it’s hard to dispute as neither contraception nor abortion were freely and legitimately available until the mid 1960s – to have had in common with ‘most’ other women students, she was outraged when a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal was not supported. In response, she produced her abortion paintings; graphic images depicting the excoriating reality of back street terminations for women and hoped for change. She succeeded.
Symbolism appears to feature significantly in Rego’s work which is hardly surprising given the culture in which she grew up. Symbols are code and code can hit you long after the superficial qualities of an image or a story have faded. With her assistant Lila Nunes as her model/proxy, Rego tells of her challenges to the world to see women differently. In particular, and according to her own account in the video, she represents her husband Victor Willing as a dog during the end stages of his decline due to MS. Willing didn’t want to be painted so the dog stands in for him. In some paintings, she is herself doing what dogs do – lying on her ‘owner’s’ blanket for instance – in painful, symbolic, coded, representations of their intertwined but often very separate lives.
The title of the exhibition strikes me as very apt. While Rego herself in her dealings with the world comes across as obedient (and this is what her grandmother told her to be with regard to men), her defiance blazes from her eyes in so many of her paintings and her piercingly critical, sometimes cartoonish, coded confrontations of repression and injustice.
In the video somewhere there came a newspaper headline, The Witch in All of Us, which I take to be an unflattering appraisal of Rego’s challenges to the neat social order of things. Not too surprising; witches were women with inscrutable powers who had to be silenced and here was another. This one, though, made her magic through visual metaphor too subtle for many to grasp and via images a good many would not wish to view, and so may have given the ducking stool the slip.
Gompertz asks why it is Rego is not regarded as being more important a painter than she is. Maybe that’s because her messages speak to the powerless more than to the powerful.