New York

Paula Rego

Marlborough | Midtown

The point of departure for Paula Rego’s sardonic, allegorical pastel paintings, rendered in a realist style at once blunt and exquisite, is Walt Disney’s parody of classical ballet in Fantasia. In Disney’s send-up, ungainly ostriches dressed in black unself-consciously cavort and the graceful, high art of ballet becomes a grotesquerie. In her treatment, Rego changes the animal dancers back into women, without, however, restoring the artificial standards of beauty imposed by balletic ideals. While her subjects in Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, 1995, seem closer to bears than birds, they remain performing animals nonetheless. Rego’s point is, after all, a powerfully feminist one: ballet takes the natural female body, in all its imperfections, and constrains it until it seems artificial and perfect. She revolts against this distorted measure of formal beauty, which in fact reflects a male ideal imposed on the female body.

Rego still holds out for high art rather than the kitsch of Disney: she harks back to Goya and, above all, it seems to me, to Velazquez’s portraits of midgets, whom he ennobles without disguising their vulnerability. A similar impulse informs Rego’s Dancing Couple from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, 1994–95, Playing with Her Father’s Trophies, 1995, and the masterpiece of the exhibition, Swallows the Poisoned Apple, 1995. All these paintings partake of the artist’s ironic fairy-tale mode to suggest a female in distress, but with a certain rough-readiness for life. This is especially the case in works such as Hyacinth—Reclining Hippo from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, 1995, and Recreation, 1996. Indeed, Rego’s women are literally too thick-skinned to be overcome by their suffering.

Men are, of course, the hidden presence in Rego’s pictures, and, when not hidden, as in Fawn, 1995, and The Bullfighter’s Apprentice, 1996, they are pictured scornfully. In Meadow, 1996, and Mound, 1996, the male figures are completely dominated. While the man wearing a sling in ‘Hey-diddley-dee—an actor’s life for me’ from Pinocchio, 1996, seems to have power, he is handicapped, in effect unarmed to do battle with the woman whom he holds by the hair: she seems on the verge of attacking him and scratching out his eyes. All of Rego’s paintings include such latent violence—the violence of outrage, which gives her pictures their peculiarly sinister, morbid undertone. Her images of women are among the few in this century that seem to have been made for a woman’s point of view rather than a man’s. The latter are likely to be repelled by Rego’s vision of women; women themselves may not find it encouraging, but the paintings cannot help but be empowering.

Donald Kuspit