Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance at The Scottish National Gallery, Modern Two is the first major retrospective in Scotland of Portuguese-born, but now living in the UK, artist Paula Rego (b.1935). As the title of this exhibition implies, here is an artist who understands very clearly the true power of art as a tool for both personal and political statements, and the painting used for the main image from this exhibition, “Angel “ from 1988 (above), leaves no one in any doubt that behind the art is a woman making a very personal and at times, angry response to political and personal issues throughout her life.
Just who is Paula Rego though? That question has to be asked here as there are many different “Paula Regos” on display in this exhibition, and different facets of a very complex woman come through not only in often very different paintings, but very different styles of art. In this exhibition we have responses to the very difficult realities of living in Portugal at the time of the virtual dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar (prime minister of the country between 1932 and 1968), as well as trying to come to terms with the difficult to accept colonial past of the country as one of the major European powers of its day. This historical colonial expansion can still be traced easily today in the fact that Portuguese is still one of the most widely spoken languages in the world today. The power of words as spoken language and written texts is also clearly understood by Paula Rego and some of the major works in this exhibition take their references from writers close to her heart as much as the works of obviously inspirational classical period artists.
Wherever you are in Portugal, religion is never far from the surface of the people and its art. Religion, for good or bad, is deeply embedded into the psyche of so many people, and that brings with it the obvious issues of faith, loyalty, devotion, and of course sacrifice. All of these issues can clearly be seen in much of the art in this exhibition, and the large triptychs, although with very different imagery and statements, take us back to the obvious days of the Old Masters creating these works for their many ornate churches.
Perhaps one of Paula Rego’s best known art phases is her “Red Monkey” series of paintings, and these paintings are still as powerful and cloaked in multiple meanings as ever. During this period, Paula Rego was dealing with many conflicting emotions in her personal life, and for anyone this is always going to be a time of difficulty. However, when, like Paula Rego, you have the ability to express those emotions through your artwork, something special can happen. The true reason behind some of these images (as with other works too) is obscure at times, and has never fully been explained by the artist. Perhaps that is as things should be, as not explaining everything leaves the works not only open to interpretation, but different interpretations that perhaps give a different meaning and personal identification to many more people who view the works.
Paula Rego is a very visually powerful artist, and her works are deliberately often not easy viewing, as difficult and often emotionally divisive subjects are tackled head on. One series of paintings devoted to the always divisive subject of abortion cannot be ignored in this exhibition. These works were Paula’s response to the failure of Portugal’s 1998 referendum to legalise the procedure. However, a second referendum in 2007 was successful.
Strangely for me, despite all of the visual power of the large and often very complex works in this exhibition that are so full of symbolism (often unexplained), the artwork that I kept returning to was nothing like any of the other works, and these were illustrations for children’s books. Perhaps my reason for returning to this was that these delicate works that so reminded me of illustrations from other classic late 19th and early 20th century children’s books, gave for me not only a completely different side of Paula Rego as an artist, but as a person, but also perhaps proof that despite everything that we experience in our adult lives, a little bit of the child within us is always still there. Also, a reminder here I think that we are all as people made up of many different emotions. These illustrations for children’s stories for me are the balance to the raw emotions in so many of the larger works on display in this exhibition.
Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance
23 November 2019 – 19 April 2020
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)
73 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DS
0131 624 6200 | nationalgalleries.org
Tickets: £11.50-£10.50 online (Concessions available)
25 & under: £7.50-£6.50 | Free for our Friends
Review by Tom King