This was my first visit to MK Gallery at Milton Keynes and I was very impressed. Spacious but unimposing with a great book shop and a well curated exhibition.
Rego’s is art with a social message. Don’t come looking for easy viewing at this powerful retrospective of Paula Rego’s work spanning the last 60 years. It begins with her work in the 60s concerned with Portugal’s fascist era under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and in a style I was unfamiliar with. Paper drawings have been cut out and glued to canvas, along with acrylic, pastels, charcoal and graphite in a riot of colour and visual information overload. The title of one, “When we had a house in the country we’d throw marvellous parties and then we’d go out and shoot negroes” gives you the flavour of her critique on brutal colonialism. That is my stand-out picture in this room, the left side of the long image in light, creamy colours followed by dark, sinister griminess to the right, punctuated with the same cream to spotlight the horror.
Then there are her anthropomorphic animal works often depicting a red monkey and a white bear in violent or malevolent acts which are about her personal love triangle followed by a large room showing her Dog Woman and Abortion series. Here, Rego is working in rich, beautiful colours applied in gorgeous, thickly applied pastels or acrylics to craftily pull you in and then sock it to you with its subject and message. Should you, for some reason, care to inform yourself about the sordidness and despair of back street abortion, you could do worse than start here. The paintings are raw, unflinching and heart breaking. I felt emotionally drained as I came to the end wondering if two of the paintings of women were schoolgirls. As I continued, I was confronted with nightmarish fairy-tale-like images about female genital mutilation and the complexity of female against female, mother against daughter, as mothers execute horrors on trusting daughters of nursery year age. By now my blood was running cold.
The paintings in the exhibition are fully explained and if you are unfamiliar with Rego, you really benefit. There is so much going on in her paintings whether it’s a tableau or a lone figure. ‘Sit’ shows a pregnant woman on a chair with her hands tied behind her, bare feet crossed. It is ominous and disturbing, but the woman is defiant, strong and beautiful and the picture expertly rendered. It is that face that resonates with me as I turn away. The triptych ‘The Betrothal; Lessons; The Shipwreck, after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth was finally unravelled for me after leaving me confused and perplexed at Tate Britain last year. Yes, I kind of got the idea of what was going on from the title, but I wanted to know in detail. So, the first is of two women surrounded by various family members discussing the marriage of their respective son and daughter, the second of the mother giving her daughter marital advice and the third is of the broken, bankrupt husband lying on his wife’s lap showing her as the strong partner of the relationship who will carry her husband through to salvation. Of course, there is so much more going on here too, Rego pours layers and layers of meaning into her paintings and gives and gives – for example, the husband lying on his wife shouts the Pieta. It is a magnificent feast for the eyes. As you continue, you see traditional roles often subverted as muse becomes man, and artist becomes woman, or woman becomes tormentor of man who is victim. It is endlessly fascinating.
Despite Rego’s paintings being almost always disturbing, they are amazing and full of stories that have you inescapably captivated and drawn in. Her figurative work is powerful, beautiful and accomplished. She deserves a far, far bigger place in our art world.
Obedience and Defiance at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, now until 22nd September 2019. Click here for further details.