Paul Rego is an artist that has a great reputation in the western art world, with shows at such esteemed places as Marlborough Fine Art, the Tate, and at the eponymous museum Casa das Histórias Paula Rego in Cascais, Portugal. She was made a Dame of the British Empire, and she has several honorary degrees, including one from Oxford. Her works, many of them large, are creepy, figurative narratives with distorted proportions, often dead colors, and intellectual rather than a sensory experience of light. Her works remind us of Lucian Freud’s ugly rendering of people and of Paul McCarthy’s myriad celebration of disgust, such as his turning Disney and other cartoon characters into self-mutilating, loathsome, and sinister monsters.
Rego, in an interview with Juliet Rix, explained her art this way: “I cast nasty people as nasty characters, bullies and witches and so on. I use them in scenarios and take pleasure in their downfall. They can be skewered or hung or shown for the repellent creatures I feel they are. You can be as violent as you like in a picture” [emphasis mine].
Paula Rego, War, 2003, pastel on paper mounted on aluminum, 160 cm × 120 cm (63 in × 47 in). Mangled, bloodied and ugly childhood stuffed animals with penises and umbilical cords living out the artist’s private narrative.
One of her earlier teachers ridiculed her drawing skills, and Rego realized that she could use art as a weapon of revenge: “I realized that in your work you can do anything. You don’t have to stop yourself. I do the opposite of self-censorship. I was able to take my revenge on a very cruel teacher who terrified me as a child [in School for Little Witches]. She taught me the times tables, and she made me feel bad about my drawing. She said: ‘Look at this girl, who says she wants to be a painter, and look at the rubbish she draws.’ I was supposed to draw a cup and saucer. It was very difficult and not very interesting. I couldn’t do it now.”
Childhood traumas are a dime a dozen, everyone has them, from simple things like seeing a cat toying with a panicked mouse to violent spousal/parental abuse or being raped. Stories and paintings about this will have a universal audience. It is probably the exception when a child has a trauma-free upbringing. There is a very special challenge in publicly dealing with themes of incest, abortion, rape, and anger. They are places that scare people, shame them, and they are unbearable to handle in public. As gross as her themes are, Rego found appreciative allies in today’s writers, critics, art dealers, and museum directors.
Yet there might be an even deeper unnamed fear: what if these artists are furthering the evil they portray, just as the sexually abused child who becomes a pedophile? We take it for granted that horrible subjects in art make us feel empathy for the victims. But is that so? Why does art exist? What anthropological and philosophical purpose does art serve? Is it to share traumas or to foster growth? Does reliving childhood horrors help anyone without a therapist’s guidance? Is the role of artist to be a victim or to offer wisdom for future generations? Is it only self-expression, or is it also a philosophy for living?
Paula Rego, Snow White and her Stepmother, 1995. Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, 178 x 150 cm. Rego: “I’m interested in seeing things from the underdog’s perspective. Usually that’s a female perspective.”
An interesting perspective on the nature of art is that it is a self-portrait of the artist. Look at Rego’s universe in art in the painting Snow White and her Stepmother. There is no goodness in it. There is nothing innocent or beautiful in a physically warped middle-aged woman (self-portrait?) dressed as Snow White.
To quote Agatha Christie’s Poirot in Death on the Nile: “Do not open your heart to evil … Because – if you do – evil will come…It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.” Could not the essence of Rego’s work be the answer to the question, What does it look like when you have irrevocably rejected the good?
Rego is celebrated in multi-million dollar establishments and magnificent institutions, her spectacular success has been hailed as equalizing the disparity of women in the arts. But isn’t it ironic that her message is that the world is evil? If one feels that way and can’t show a better alternative why bother?
Turn the problem around and look at it from the perspective of a damaged child viewer. The child will see that from Rego’s hideous worldview there is no way out. Instead of offering a child hope and a future to aspire to, the artist is showing that there is nothing worthwhile to live for. Instead of solace, this artist is enabling the pedophiles by telling the victims this is your lot in life forever.
Wouldn’t it be better to save Rego’s expressions for the therapist and not as something worthy of contemplation?
Rego with one of her installations.