Paula Rego is a teller of tales, a discloser of secrets. Her Portuguese childhood was filled with stories. As an only child, she would while away the hours alone in her nursery, drawing. Hers was a strict upbringing in which many things were forbidden. Fears lurked in the dark corners of the house as well as in the world outside. The Catholic Church was, in late 1930s and 1940s Portugal, very repressive, with good and evil an ever present reality, as was the strict code of manners that ruled the bourgeois society in which she grew up.
Stories were provided by female relatives, by aunts and grandmothers. Often, she would have to dress up for them in her party best. And clothes have always had an important function in Paula Rego’s paintings, as if to create costumes for her models and characters was an allowable form of adult dressing-up. Girls and women fill her work. The smell of domination and rebellion, freedom and repression, suffocation and escape permeates her imagery. Early on she painted knife-wielding monkeys and tearful cabbages that acted as projections for her fears. Fear, she once said, has to have a face.
Fairy tales and children’s stories have provided fertile soil for her vivid imagination. She has illustrated nursery rhymes, created ink and watercolour drawings to illustrate Peter Pan, and a series of etchings for the poet Blake Morrison’s Pendle Witches. More recently, at Dulwich Picture Gallery, she worked on a group of paintings influenced by the 17th-century Spanish artist Murillo, and the 19th-century story The Sin of Father Amero, by the Portuguese writer, Ece de Queiros.
Dancing for Mr Rochester, 2002
Now, she has found another perfect subject to express her themes of frustration, fear and repressed eroticism – Jane Eyre. For almost a year, from the summer of 2001, she worked obsessively to produce a series of pastels and her first major suite of lithographs. The result is that electrifying Rego mix of the edgy and the uncanny. As in Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, the former Mrs Rochester, Bertha, normally safely under lock and key in her attic, is brought centre stage in this series of theatrical scenes. We see her in petticoat and stays, biting the arm of Rochester in an image full of violent eroticism, or sitting, skirt around her thighs, on the ground like a fractious, angry child. Part maniacal-harridan, part-vulnerable, sexually precocious girl, she is presented in Rego’s large pastel as a mulatto beauty lying on her bed in skimpy shift and black platform fuck-me shoes, a toy monkey placed strategically between her thighs.
Bertha’s Monkey, 2002
This monkey returns again in the disturbing 6ft triptych of Jane, Edward and Bertha’s Monkey. Here the strange dishevelled cloth creature seems to act as a metonym for Bertha; dressed in a strait jacket-like white robe, its cloth arms tied together, it sits perched, a picture of both threat and dejection, on the edge of a ladder. Jane, by contrast, with her down-turned mouth, dressed in plain governess satin, lurks distrustfully behind a damask awning, a brooding jealous presence.
Among the pastels is a series commissioned on the theme of La Fete, and a number of works that grew from a commission by Modern Painters magazine to create images for a colouring book to raise money for Unicef. It was then that Rego’s white rabbits reappeared, not having featured in her work for a number of years. Feeling the need to respond to the war in Iraq, she has created a searing painting based on masks and mannequins that she has arranged in the studio. A blank-eyed rabbit cradles another rabbit, with a bloody and tattered face, and wearing a pink dress, in her arms. The look of anguish, dread and despair speaks eloquently of the horror of war, with some of the force of Goya.
Paula Rego’s visual tales give voice to all that is transgressive, furtive, punitive, and just a little afraid in our natures. It seems that we can all recognise something of that.
Paula Rego Jane Eyre and Other Stories at Marlborough Fine Arts London from 14 Oct to 22 Nov 2003
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003
Images © Paula Rego 2003. Courtesy of Marlborough Fine Arts
Published in The Independent