Paula Rego’s lumpen figures, often so sturdy their proportions seem dwarf-like, have such presence, such immediacy, that it’s easy to forget they are mediated. So much more real than figures in a photograph, which are rarely more than optical phantoms, they are imbued with mass and duration, in a sense that could only be denied by refusing to play the game of representation at all. To see so many of the large paintings and pastels in which her characteristic human bodies appear in a single show, a single afternoon, had an uncanny effect on me, showing me the world almost literally through another person’s eyes. However my untrained and slowly deteriorating eyes interpret the world, particularly that most erotically charged part of it, the human body, it will always be in a way that’s unique to myself. It will also be in a way which is reactive, happenstance, lacking in rigour or any systematic visual understanding. This is why we need visual artists: they can show us how to see, and even though we can never really learn that lesson without becoming artists ourselves, they can teach us to see in different ways, or even simply that there are different ways of seeing.
Unlike Lucian Freud, who taught Rego at the Slade, and with whom she has been compared, the arresting, phenomenal bodies with which she populates her canvases are not the ultimate repository of meaning in her work. This in itself seems incredible. That someone with such a grasp of the human form, able to invest the picture plane with such pungent, carnal, sweaty physicality, feels the need to do anything else at all, speaks of a singularly restless creative vision. But the myth around Freud is that he painted bodies and humans as they really were (as though anything ‘really’ is something), while Rego’s figures are much more overtly fictionalised, divergent in form from their models, and depicted in symbolically charged, artificially contrived scenes.
These densely figured bodies are characteristic of Rego’s late career. As I have only ever been peripherally aware of her work, these are the images which I associate with her name, but there are several other phases of practice in her history represented in this show, and it is her constructed psychodramatic tableaux that are the unifying factor, rather than any element of pictorial style or technique. Indeed, there is little in her earlier work to suggest that there is such a consummate technician at work, such a painterly painter. It was only in the mid-to-late 1980s, it turns out, that her representations began to withdraw from the picture plane, to invite the gaze into spaces between and around concrete forms. Before that, figures and forms crowd the surface of her work with a busy, jangling, flatness, schematic symbols with heavy outlines, or self-consciously avant-garde distortions.
It was with the intersection of two subjects, women and dogs, that Rego’s late style began to emerge. Obedience and Defiance—a touring exhibition which we saw at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art—shows the viewer a narrative (doubtless false or oversimplified, as much of her work is not in the show), in which the all-over, symbolic and decorative surface of 1985’s ‘The Bride’ is succeeded by the flat and heavily outlined acrylics of ‘Untitled’ (1986), in which a girl is putting a collar on a dog, and in which both the subjects and the figure style of her later work is visible. ‘Snare’ (1987), and other works from this transitional period, are less flat, but colour is still applied in blocks with little modelling. ‘Lush’ (1994) sees her move into the use of pastels, and into her characteristic late representations of women as physically unidealised, morally and politically imperfect figures. It’s this gritty fidelity to the warty truth of her perceptions that makes her late psychodramas so powerful. They are staged, imaginary scenes, but the actors are not pretending to be anyone, and they are more real than anyone I have seen outside of a painting. They are vigorously, aggressively, hurtfully real.
The relations between genders are an important concern for Rego. The exhibition contains a loop showing of a revealing documentary about her, directed by her son Nick Willing, in which she is startlingly candid. This is an extremely important component of the insight into her work that the exhibition offers. She has sought strong male figures throughout her life, and offered them, as she explicitly names it, her obedience. She describes herself as being a man when she is painting, swaggering in front of the easel, and she uses this image to give agency to some of her female figures, showing them painting somnolent male models, for example.
Her work, and her take on gender, might be somewhat uncomfortable for a theoretically prescriptive feminist: Rego is a product of a patriarchy, and she does not deny the part of herself that is submissive, that is trained to subject itself willingly to male power. She rarely has a specific, singular point to make (although her series on abortion and FGM are exceptions), but is more interested in exploring what it is to be a woman, to be her. This she does with a kind of abjectness, a kind of humiliated subjection to the demands of her practice, painting with a raw and devastating honesty that can be hard to witness. Had she not had career success, she might have made different work, requiring less elaborate studio setups for example, but Rego is an artist that you can be absolutely certain would have made extraordinary work if she had been labouring in total obscurity. Musicians and other performers sometimes talk about ‘leaving it all on the stage’, having nothing left to give at the end of the performance. Rego leaves it all on the canvas.