Paula Rego Introduction

Paula Rego is one of the most celebrated and , I would suggest, problematic artists currently working in Britain. She has continually renewed her practice, which has included the cut, paste and painted collages of the 1950s and 60s, the animal pictures of the 80s which developed into the more grounded grand compositions, the large pastels through to the present obsessive fixation with working directly from the observed experience, in order to delve into her imagination. While many contemporary artists, especially women, have embraced new media and processes to discover a personal visual language, Rego has steadfastly engaged herself within the complexities of traditional practice, seeking to take on the challenge of painting. Parallel to this, she has produced a profound body of work as a printmaker, the subject of this retrospective, in which once again she works within established modes of practice, in her case predominantly intaglio and more recently lithography.

Her prints shadow the changes and innovations within her practice as a painter, while always retaining an exploration of the very special qualities of light and dark that is particular to the medium. Her pressing concern is to tell a story, everything else is subordinate to this end. In her Graphic work, as in her painting, Rego is a great storyteller who both persuasively and subversively seizes you at the first encounter, and then keeps a relentless grip on your mind and senses until she has finished her complex, infinitely subtle and reverberating tales (Tom Rosenthal) There are two central pillars to an understanding of Paula Rego the artist. Firstly that she is pre eminently a draughtswoman of extraordinary range, both stylistically and emotionally, and secondly that she is the quintessential storyteller.

Together, these two attributes make printmaking a highly appropriate medium within which to explore her fertile and often dark imagination. She is, I believe, one of those rare creators whose body of work produced through printmaking extends and deepens our understanding of the artist's personality. It is impossible to evaluate Rego's art without a serious and due consideration of her prints.

This exhibition provides the first opportunity to see this body of work together as a whole. They include the rarely seen early experiments made in the 1950's, the now familiar etchings of the Nursery Rhymes and Peter Pan and the lithographs of Jane Eyre. The exhibition would not have been possible without the thorough research by Tom Rosenthal, which resulted in the sumptuous publication of Paula Rego, The Complete Graphic Work in 2003. This book documents all her prints to date, provides a valuable commentary and points to the changing role that print has played within her oeuvre. If Paula Rego is a storyteller then she herself is also the centre of a life story that has the ingredients of an opera libretto.

Her story is well documented in the monograph by John McEwen, which details her childhood in Portugal, her studies at the Slade, her marriage to the painter Victor Willing, and her life in London. Her work openly draws on her own childhood experiences, her relationships, responsibilities and family life with all its complexities. Vic Willing more specifically defines her concerns as being, 'domination and rebellion, suffocation and escape'. Her childhood in Portugal was a mixture of upper middle class privilege (her father an engineer and anglophile) and the company of servants. The Portugal she grew up in was under the dictatorship of Salazar, a country held in tension and somewhat isolated from the rest of Europe. She attended an English school in Portugal before being sent to a finishing school in Kent.

From there she went on to study at the Slade under William Coldstream in the company of students who were to become leading figures in the British art scene; Craigie Aitchison, Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and her future husband Victor Willing. I would recommend John McEwen's monograph on Rego as a rich source for further study. But while Rego has lived in London continuously since 1976 the landscapes and places in her work recall her childhood in Portugal. For Rego her work is a way of revisiting, re ordering and perhaps reclaiming this birthplace. It is also her childhood that provides clues to the roots of her graphic art; a solitary childhood with her appetite for stories fed by her grandparents and aunts who would tell her stories recalled from memory, Blanco y negro (a publication full of tales told through drawings presented in a bold comic style), the tradition of painted Portuguese tiles, the illustrations of amongst others, Cruickshank, Dore and Gillray and the discovery later on of Dubuffet, outsider art and of course Goya. This mixture of high and low culture, paintings, illustrations, stories and storytellers form the background from which Rego's printmaking has grown.

Storytelling places the emphasis on the narrator who can reinvent the story afresh for each telling. In this oral tradition, meaning is not fixed in the manner of the written text, but reframed each time, often in direct response to the listener. In her work and with particular reference to her prints, Rego, recalling and revisiting her childhood, takes on the role of the narrator herself. She invents her own stories, freely interprets existing ones and delights in the telling and retelling. View artworks by Paula Rego and read the rest of this essay plus additional articles about the artist. .

By: Professor Paul Coldwell


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