In Review

Exhibition of the week: Paula Rego at Tate Britain

Her art mixes folklore and ‘fetishistic menace’, enchantment and horror – and it ‘lingers powerfully in the mind’

Nobody ever accused Paula Rego of holding back, said Eleanor Nairne in The New York Times. She is “the kind of artist who paints a soldier in a leopard-print gimp mask”, a woman cutting off a monkey’s tail, or “the devil’s wife in nipple tassels”. Her art mixes folklore and “fetishistic menace”, enchantment and horror – and it “lingers powerfully in the mind”.

Rego was born in Portugal in 1935, but has been largely resident in England since the 1950s: her liberal parents sent her to a finishing school in Kent and then art college in London to escape the repressive regime of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. In her adopted home­land, though largely ignored until the 1980s, she has become an unlikely “national treasure” and Dame Commander.

Now she is getting the UK’s highest artistic accolade: a full-scale retrospective at Tate Britain. The exhibition is “the biggest and most comprehensive” display of Rego’s work held in the UK to date, said Florence Hallett in The i Paper. Bringing together paintings, drawings and prints dating from every stage of her seven-decade career, it is packed with “brilliant, shocking” pictures that cumulatively represent “an avalanche of female experience”. Make no mistake: it is a “magnificent” achievement.

The show could hardly be more of-the-moment, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. The Rego it gives us is “a fierce tutelary deity for the #MeToo generation”, a feminist “avenging angel” whose work “perpetually demonises blokes as bogeymen”.

Paula Rego on display

The earliest work here, Interrogation (1950) – a protest against the abortion laws of the Salazar regime – depicts a seated woman surrounded by “uniformed thugs” with “bulging crotches”; it is “as much a manifesto as a canvas”, and sets the tone for the cascade of warped and violent imagery to come. The Policeman’s Daughter (1987) has a young woman arm-deep in a jackboot. The father glimpsed in 1988’s The Family is being “forcefully undressed by his female kin”. Presumably he is undergoing some sort of righteous retribution: “payback time, daddy”.

I am “not Rego’s biggest fan” – I find her work “excessively illustrative and didactic”. And in the later years, she has tended to “over­stuff her compositions with dense imagery”, resulting in “silly, incoherent” pictures like 1994’s The Barn. Never­theless, I would have to “concede that this is an excellent exhibition”, which does justice to a fascinating career.

“Rego is phenomenal, but this exhibition won’t let you immerse yourself in her world,” said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. The works here are hung on “intrusively coloured walls” and paired with reductive captions that repeatedly try to “batter” the “subtle strangeness” of Rego’s work into “crude political messages”.

Yet given the number of modern masterpieces here, it hardly matters. Among the best are a “surreal and mysterious” triptych of paintings based on Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode; 1988’s “spine-tingling” moonlit beach scene The Dance; and perhaps best of all, an extraordinary scene titled Dog Woman, in which the image’s eponymous subject “goes down on all fours and contorts her face as if she is barking or howling”. She could be being dictated to by “an invisible man, grunting commands”. Then again, she might be “suffering for God”. All in all, if you can overcome the slight “irritations” of this exhibition, you will find much “great art” on show here.

Tate Britain, London SW1 (tate.org.uk). Until 24 October

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