By Kate Hunter
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Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance

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Issue 448

The title of this exhibition, which spans Portuguese artist Paula Rego’s output from the 1960s to the present day, succinctly describes the tensions expressed in her complex work. Rego’s experience and imagination are particular to Portuguese society —starting with growing up under Salazar’s savage fascist dictatorship and the weight of the Catholic Church. But her works go beyond the particular to comment on the human experience — particularly women’s — in all oppressive, hierarchical societies.

Rego’s series of portraits of women undergoing backstreet abortions are the most immediately accessible works on show. Made in response to the failure of a 1998 Portuguese referendum to legalise abortion, they pack a mighty punch.

Suffering is there in the faces and in the way the women’s bodies are positioned, and they are portrayed as alone with their harrowing experience, but these are not wretched victims — they are tough, resilient women who challenge the viewer to take a good look.

In the run-up to a repeat referendum in 2007, when abortion was legalised, Rego’s images appeared in Portuguese newspapers. More recently she has produced work on female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and the bombing of Iraq.

The bulk of Rego’s work is much less straightforward. Her “Dog Women” series of portraits are naturalistic in style, but we’re in the realm of the strange and unsettling. Women are portrayed in canine stances, exhibiting canine behaviour — baying and snarling — giving powerful expression to the notion of “obedience and defiance”.

The world gets stranger and more disturbing in Rego’s bold representations of psychic and emotional experience. Using elements of symbolism and magical realism, she explores themes of myth and fairy tales, literature, religion and depression. These are highly dramatic works. When she says, “What you want to do is make people look at life”, Rego clearly means internal as well as external life. Her series based on childhood impressions of Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, for instance, exposes, the “complex dynamic of sexuality, power and guilt”.

Rego’s big, unglamorous women are a striking presence. Subject to domination they may be, but cowed they are not; they look like they could knock you — and, come the day, their oppressors — over with a flick of a hefty arm. As the artist says: “A real lumpy, bumpy woman who has sinned — it’s an aspect of the human condition that has always appealed to me.”

Even asleep, as in the portrait of a lumpy, thoroughly-human woman lying doglike, the impression is of latent power as much as, or rather than, vulnerability. And in Angel (1998) Rego has given women a wonderful sword-wielding avenger.

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