Paula Rego is one of the great artists of our times, roaming the marchlands between myth and reality – as can be seen in Tate Britain’s unmissable retrospective
True art is often the thread that twitches across time. So it was for me, at least, when I finally saw, in its full splendour, Paula Rego’s The Policeman’s Daughter (1987) at Tate Britain’s extraordinary retrospective of her work (booking until 24 October).
It is a stunning piece, depicting a young woman busy polishing her father’s boot – theoretically playing a subordinate role by performing such a chore but, with a duality that is characteristic of the Portuguese artist, absolutely in command of herself and the space she occupies with her defiant expression and the mass of her body.
The room in which she sits resembles a de Chirico piazza, great blocks of light competing with the formality of perspective. And – another grace note typical of Rego – there is a cat with its paw against the wall, a spirit animal looking beyond the frame.
I had a picture of that acrylic painting, an A4 page cut out of an old issue of Time Out in an ordinary clip-frame, on my wall at college, and I still find it mesmerising, more than 30 years later. (When I met Rego at a lunch in 2005 in Oxford, where she was receiving a Doctorate of Letters, I babbled on about the picture and what it meant to me – and she was, I have to say, charm itself.)
It is remarkable to reflect that this great artist, who is now 86, based in London and still busily working, only really broke through to the mainstream in the UK in 1988, with an acclaimed exhibition at the Serpentine. The Tate retrospective, which assembles more than 100 works, is long overdue – but all the more welcome for that.
Born in Lisbon in 1935, Rego was a child of the long authoritarian rule of António de Oliveira Salazar, and has always been a robustly political and feminist artist, rebelling against repression, violence and patriarchy. In Interrogation (1950), one sees the psychic cost paid by the woman who has been tortured by two faceless men, and the horribly sexualised nature of their oppression. Her early work is often explicitly dissident – Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960), for instance – and much of it is executed in collage, drawing eclectically on pop art, Dada and surrealism.
In 1998, responding to the Portguese referendum that maintained the prohibition on abortion, she produced a series of pastels, both unsparingly graphic and profoundly compassionate, documenting the cost to women of continued backstreet terminations (abortion was finally legalised after a second referendum in 2007).
Even as her thematic focus has shifted over the years, she has remained implacably engaged with questions of human rights and political justice, notably in the graphite, crayon and watercolour triptych, Human Cargo (2007-8), which captures not only the wickedness of human trafficking but its mutilation of minds, bodies and the female soul. In works such as Circumcision and Nightbride (both 2009), she sets the horror of FGM in a visual context that is both contemporary and invokes a much older cycle of repression through the centuries.
Rego’s personal interest in Jungian analysis was undoubtedly a turning point in her life. It helped her with her private tribulations – notably the multiple sclerosis that afflicted her husband, Vic Willing, between his diagnosis in 1966 and death in 1988. But, in her own words, she was also “freed” artistically by Jung’s notion of psychological archetypes, the “shadow” that is the repressed side of a personality and the myths and primal images that crowd in upon the human psyche.
This fascination beat a path to a long love affair with fairy tales, folklore and nursery rhymes – stunningly reflected in a series of etchings and aquatints in 1989. As Marina Warner writes in the exhibition catalogue: “Rego invokes particular works of folklore and literature, yet her approach withholds explanations and tantalises us to grasp what she is dramatising… she accepts, as fairy tales do, cruelty and wickedness, while vengeance wrought against the villains excites gleeful satisfaction.”
The consequence is that her paintings are both exquisitely rendered and packed with unsettling fringe details: animals, dolls, morphing faces, mirrors, windmills, the strange intrusions at the edges of the dreaming mind. Inspired by Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1993), is an astonishing montage of entangled flora, fauna, human emotion and forbidding landscape.
For Rego, narrative is all, and she is omnivorous in her quarrying of sources: Snow White and Peter Pan are as important to her as Hogarth, Goya, Jane Eyre, and Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play, The Pillowman (which inspired an unsettling triptych in pastel in 2004).
Those who say that she is a citizen of two artistic realms, moving between the real and the magical as she pleases, miss the point entirely. For Rego, there is no border between the two; only a constant interaction between what we perceive as naturalistic and the dreams that pursue us wherever we go.
In this respect, story-telling is the heart of the matter: it is no accident that the museum opened in her honour in 2009 in Cascals on the Portuguese Riviera is named the Casa das Histórias Paula Rego. As she herself puts it, women are the natural gatekeepers between myth and experience, the custodians of narrative: “It is carrying something on from one generation to another. It has to do with practical things. People who look after people are very near things.”
She describes her aesthetic as “beautiful grotesque” – which captures the entanglement in her work of enchantment and terror, of the poised and the feral, of the social and the profoundly interior.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. Don’t even think of missing it.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
The Water Man (Netflix, 9 July)
David Oyelowo’s directorial debut is an accomplished supernatural thriller, in which 11-year-old Gunner Boone (Lonnie Chavis) goes in search of the legendary Water Man in the forest to help cure his cancer-stricken mother, Mary (Rosario Dawson). Oyelowo himself plays Gunner’s father, Amos, and brings his usual dramatic heft to a role that might otherwise have been slight. The pace, emotional depth and well-judged use of special effects all suggest a bright future for him behind, as well as in front of the camera.
Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story (VOD, selected cinemas)
It is salutary to be reminded that the reinvention of the self – the public persona crafted almost from scratch – long predates the arrival of the social media juggernaut. The late Jackie Collins grew up in the shadow of her film star sister, Joan, but, tagging along in Hollywood, discovered an unexpected gift for turning what she saw – the excess, the parties, the treachery, the promiscuity – into blockbuster books. Laura Fairrie’s documentary, made with the cooperation of Collins’s children and siblings, is a riveting account of a milieu: the Los Angeles and London of the Seventies and Eighties, disco, shoulder pads, big hair, Tramp, and shimmering swimming pools. It is also a story fraught with pathos – of personal loss and a relentless Faustian pact that delivered fame but only at great cost to the soul.
Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie & Tupac (screenings at selected cinemas): reviewed by Tortoise member, Paul Atherton
Picking up the story nearly 20 years after Nick Broomfield’s original documentary looking into the killings of superstar rappers, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, his reinvestigation almost proves the claims of the first film – and is a more satisfying watch. Many of the people too scared to come forward in 2002 for fear of reprisals by former record executive Suge Knight now feel confident to speak, with Knight safely behind bars, and Death Row Records a footnote to hip hop history. The star of the documentary is undoubtedly its co-producer, Pam Brooks, the gatekeeper in Compton who arranges much of the access Broomfield needs, but also brings a welcome sense of humour to proceedings.
As well as being one of the most important magazine editors of the past 30 years – notably in his 22 years transforming British GQ – Dylan Jones has become an essential chronicler of modern pop culture. After the success of Sweet Dreams, his account of the New Romantic movement, he now explores ten distinctive singles that defined a decade: from ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, via The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, to ‘Sign O’ The Times’ by Prince.
Do join Dylan Jones, Martyn Ware (of the Human League and Heaven 17) and Sarah Champion (presenter on the radio station, Absolute 80s) on Thursday 15 July, 18:30-19:30 BST, at our ThinkIn on the defining role of pop in the Eighties. You can book your place here.
Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus – Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green (Hodder & Stoughton)
Quite simply, one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of medicine, told by the two women at the heart of the battle to immunise the world against Covid. The sheer speed with which these two remarkable scientists worked, under what can only be described as planetary pressure, is astounding. But the book ends with a warning: “If the disease is running wild in other countries then even once we have vaccinated everyone in the country we live in, we remain at risk from someone hopping onto a plane, unknowingly carrying an emerging variant that can escape existing vaccines.” On which note: do please join Tortoise’s #TheArmsRace campaign for global vaccination. You can find out how to donate doses and help out here.
The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton – edited by Angus Gowland (Penguin Classics)
Weighing in at 1,300 pages and first published in 1627, Robert Burton’s classic treatise on melancholia is not an obvious beach read (though it has potential as a mini-parasol). All the same, this beautifully-produced 400th anniversary edition helps to explain why the book has been so influential for so long. In a sense, it is an early modern self-help manual, full of wit, learning and top tips for a better life – which is why it has been hailed as a masterpiece by writers ranging from John Keats to Jorge Luis Borges and Nick Cave. A book to keep by your bedside, and a reminder that humanity has always agonised, intellectualised and laughed about the conundrum of happiness – and its absence.
It Won’t Always Be Like This – Inhaler (9 July)
Hailing from Dublin, Inhaler have both benefited and suffered by association with U2 (their lead singer and guitarist, Elijah Hewson, is Bono’s son). As Martin Amis discovered, such heredity ensures you have a ready-made audience but that you are also subjected to dynastic comparison. To be fair to Inhaler, they are much more than a Mini-Me version of U2 – and this debut album is a fine slice of power pop that feels bracingly contemporary. They are also terrific live, with a series of gigs now planned as lockdown is lifted. Check out the title track for an appetiser.
Love Songs – Angela Hewitt
For three decades, Angela Hewitt has been a force of nature in classical music, a virtuoso pianist best-known for her interpretations of Bach. This compilation captures the emotion that underpins her awesome discipline, with transcriptions of songs by composers including Richard Strauss, Schumann, Gluck and Schubert. As ever, the performance is captivating.
Desert Eagle – Jah Khalib (10 July)
The Azerbaijani-Kazakh rapper and singer, Bakhtiyar Mammadov – AKA Jah Khalib – makes music that is uplifting, striking in the breadth of its influences, and close to transcendent in its impact. Listen to this for a sense of the wondrous sounds that he produces.
ANNA X – Harold Pinter Theatre (now booking 10 July-August 4)
Fresh from their Golden Globe-winning performance as Diana in Season Four of The Crown, Emma Corrin makes their West End debut opposite Nabhaan Rizwan in Joseph Charlton’s new play, set in the glamorous, treacherou world of New York’s social elite. Inspired by the real-life case of Anna Sorokin, the German heiress who conned hundreds of thousands of dollars out of credulous socialites. A hot ticket, as London theatre reopens.
..and finally, Tortoise member, Jude Habib, recommends:
What’s in a name? – Arcola Theatre (8-9 July)
Inspired by historical stories from Coram’s Foundling Hospital archive as inspiration, and led by rapper and artist Ric Flo, twelve care-experienced young people present a production that dramatises their own identities via music, rap and spoken word.
Thanks to Jude, and Paul Atherton. Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Have a great week.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Courtesy Private Collection, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Portugal copyright Paula Rego, Karen Ballard/ Netflix, Film Four/Lafayette/Kobal/Shutterstock, Oliver Cowling/Tate, Ric Flo