Paula Rego

The evocation of tension—social, sexual, emotional, and fictional—is the thread that runs through Paula Rego’s work. These tensions unite figures who appear to be rooted in the intimacy of domestic life, yet Rego’s visual narratives often eschew realism in favor of allegory and dream, giving her art an archetypal quality.

Born in Portugal, Rego has been living in London since the ’60s, where she has gradually emerged as a significant voice in contemporary European painting. Throughout her career, she has embraced a wide range of styles, beginning with the art brut of Dubuffet in the ’50s. She is especially known for her imaginative post-Pop collages of the ’60s, and she continued to work in this medium in the following decade. It was in the ’80s that she began making classical, one might even say restrained, paintings characterized by their psychological tension, heavy atmosphere, and classical figuration. Here she executes traditional Western forms of representing the figure (above all the female figure) in a vigorous and lively manner that gives her vision of the body a palpable contemporaneity.

This show unites two of her most recent series of paintings. The first, “O Crime do Padre Amaro” (The crime of Father Amaro), 1997–98, takes as its inspiration the eponymous novel by José Marin Eça de Queirós, a nineteenth-century Portuguese writer who was a critic of the hypocrisy of his society. In this book he denounces the Catholic church through the figure of an adulterous priest. The paintings are not, however, straight illustrations. In some works, Rego captures individual characters in particularly intense moments, in which psychological tension, or its momentary abatement, is conveyed. Four works from the series depict a man surrounded by women in a domestic scene. In two of these, the man occupies the center, the conventional position of power, but his involvement in an eminently feminine domain seems to infantilize him (as an adult assuming the pose of a child, in The Company of Women, 1997) or feminize him (as in Mother, 1997, in which the man is wearing a skirt). Rego destabilizes the distribution of authority, and the play of gazes, the unexpected choreography of poses, the highly worked fabrics, and the improbable decorative elements further contribute to the works’ narrative density and air of suspense.

The other series, “Untitled,” 1998–99, directly addresses abortion, a subject that is frequently alluded to in Rego’s work. Here it is treated openly, which has rarely been done in painting. Rego’s title underlines the unspeakable nature of the subject, especially in the context of a conservative and Catholic culture. Rego’s rendering of the physical density of bodies, the determined gazes, the robust poses—visible in the tautness of hands and feet—lends her work an obvious dramatic tension, out of which emerges a sense of affirmation and resistance that is, perhaps, the mark of a specifically feminine authority and vision.

Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Sheila Glaser.