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Spellbinding Storyteller

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Major Retrospective Brings Paula Rego's Haunting Images to U.S.

I encountered artist Paula Rego like someone reading the end of a story without knowing much about what happened before. I had a phone interview scheduled with her before I was able to view the major exhibition of her work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. And truth be told, I—like many Americans—didn’t really know much about this London-based, Portuguese-born artist.

But in England and throughout Europe, Rego’s haunting story-based paintings and drawings have made her, at the age of 71, a kind of luminary icon. If you hunt her name on the Internet, you’ll find many comparisons alluding to children’s author Beatrix Potter and figurative painter Francis Bacon, among others. I did see Rego’s pictures, not in person, but in a book, which may be the best way to start inching toward her potent imagery. Otherwise, encountering Rego’s visually raw “Dog Woman” or her “Dancing Ostriches” without warning or explanation just might give you some disconcerting dreams.

In fact, she’s been dubbed a sinister storyteller for her somewhat unnerving narratives and figures, which are peppered with acts of recognition—childhood memories, direct observations, fairytales such as “Pinocchio” and “Snow White,” literary references such as “Jane Eyre” and theatrical ones such as Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” which I’d seen last season at the Studio Theatre.

“You saw that?” she asked in her distinct British accent, even though her heart and blood remain deeply Portuguese. And from there, our phone conversation was off as I quickly discovered how it was easy to talk with Rego, even if you didn’t know her paintings from a stop sign.

“It’s about fairytales, you know, about storytelling,” she explained. “The works are stories. Not very fashionable, I’ve been accused of that—to do that when conceptual or abstract art is considered serious and other things are not.” But as Rego put it: “Stories are my life.”

And her own story is finally coming to the United States at the National Museum of Women in the Arts with a show that is startling, deeply affecting, at times laugh-out-loud funny, other times disturbing, but always engaging. Featuring more than 100 of Rego’s paintings, pastels, prints and drawings, it’s the first retrospective of her work ever in a U.S. museum.

But Rego’s work has long garnered the attention and awe of many across the pond. According to John Tusa of BBC Radio: “Some of her series of paintings, ‘Dog Woman,’ the ‘Red Monkey’ series, have created unforgettable images that no one else could have painted. The constants in her work are the female form, the Portuguese woman, stocky, muscular, that she was brought up with and toys and animals often in disturbingly humanoid forms. And time and again there are references to childhood experiences but always seen through a subversive remembered eye.”

And that subversive voice is clearly unafraid to tell the stories that might make others cringe—from an openly stark abortion room, to the first Iraq war, to the dark side of the fairytales that adults use to explain the world to children. “I heard all the stories, the fables, the fairytales, the village tales,” she said. “Grimm? Yes, of course, so you know how they work. They’re awfully bloody, terrible things, really.”

I told her how when my son was young and watched “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” he yelled loudly at the witch on the screen: “Fall down the stairs and get hurt!” “No surprise,” Rego replied. “Children are deeply affected by stories—they stay with you all your life. I always loved [Walt] Disney. I think he was a genius.”

So when Rego was asked by a London museum to do a series on the theme of American films, she initially thought of Carmen Miranda, but then switched to Disney and “Fantasia,” producing her “Dancing Ostriches” series.

These “Dancing Ostriches” are a highlight of the exhibit, filling the walls of an entire room. These “Ostriches” are actually women donning ballet paraphernalia—from the pointy shoes to the little white tutus—strangely depicting the determination of large, ungainly bodies moving to elfin dreams.

Almost all of Rego’s subjects—real or surreal—are women, rarely interacting with men, except on special occasions. Animals also figure prominently—larges rabbits straight out of “Alice in Wonderland,” crazed cats from nursery rhymes, or dogs, wolves and bears embracing women. All represent dreams and memories, wounding us with their punch and their sheer rage at the self-assured smugness of cruelty.

Growing up in Portugal under the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, Rego has experienced the suffocating societal pressure that tries to keep women in specified roles. “To become a writer, an artist, a painter, or to be by one’s self—without a husband or family—well that wasn’t allowed,” she said. “My father had me sent to England and educated there.”

She ended up remaining in England, studying at the Slade School of Art, where she met artist Victor Willing, whom she later married. In 1988, Willing died from multiple sclerosis. “Some of that, Victor’s dying, that period, was part of many of my works. But now, it is a long time ago, 20 years,” Rego said.

Indeed, her work has continually evolved, though it consistently offers a richly imaginative perspective on the human form. She recalled taking drawing classes that taught the body was merely flesh, “but there’s more than that. Here’s someone living in those folds of skin, those breasts and arms and paunchy stomach,” she said.

“I use models all the time for everything I do,” she added. “My daughter, my son-in-law, he’s in there, you’ll find him. My daughter and others dressed up for the ‘Dancing Ostriches.’ We had a fun time of it.”

Interestingly, her son-in-law is Ron Mueck, a sculptor who had his own powerful exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum several years ago featuring his larger-than-life hyperrealist sculpture.

Through her own fondness for stories and narrative, Rego is a curious sort of woman—intensely interested in the world and people around her. She pursues stories until they practically come out of her and onto the canvas. One interviewer described her as guileless, that you can ask her anything. I discovered something else too—after a few minutes, you’re apt to tell her anything. That’s because although she likes to tell stories, she also likes to listen.

Maybe the most interesting story of all though is this exhibit itself, with its 100 works and cast of hundreds of characters that have never been seen in this country before. Now that’s a story whose time is long overdue.

Paula Rego through May 25 National Museum of Women in the Arts 1250 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 783-5000or visit www.nmwa.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999