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Essays on Paula Rego

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Maria Manuel Lisboa

8. Epilogue Let Me Count the Ways I Love You

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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
[…] I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese
History is above all a lesson in morality.
Joaquim Pedro de Oliveira Martins, História de Portugal
It may be asked whether the interpretation of meanings apart from satisfying our intellectual curiosity also contributed to our enjoyment of works of art. I for one am inclined to maintain that it does. Modern psychology has taught us… that the senses have their own kind of reason. It may well be that the intellect has its own kind of joys.
Erwin Panofsky

1‘The work of the painter and of all other representative artists [is] far removed from the truth and associated with elements in us equally far removed from reason, in a fond liaison without health or truth. […] Representative art is an inferior child born of inferior parents’ (Plato, 1987, 371). For Plato, the visual artist’s pursuit belonged in an ignoble league because he saw it as purely mimetic: ‘the artist knows little or nothing about the subjects he represents and […] the art of representation is something that has no serious value’ (Plato, 1987, 369). Furthermore, he berates the visual and dramatic arts alike for inciting immorality, and for this reason, in Book Ten of The Republic he banishes both from his ideal state. According to this tract, poetry (and, it is to be supposed, art too), ‘has a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters’. It does so by encouraging indulgence in excesses of emotion, so that in exposing ourselves to it we ‘let ourselves be carried away by our feelings’ (Plato, 1987, 374). Both art and poetry were thus deemed to be unworthy activities for the free citizen.

2In Plato’s philistine republic, however, and in the encounter between the emotive artist and the truth-loving philosopher, there prevails nonetheless an enduring feeling of disquiet on the part of the latter towards the banished yet awe-ful artist: the feeling, in fact, of the subordinate in thrall to anxiety of influence vis à vis the resented precursor. In the Platonic view, the apprehensiveness experienced by the philosopher towards the artist is that of ‘the bitch that growls and snarls at her master’ (Plato, 1987, 376). Plato’s moralising dictates, moreover, entail a subsequent reversal whereby art becomes the dethroned master turned bitch, in the tidy backyard of a house-proud state, purged of unruly aesthetic representations. According to these wholesome Platonic prescriptions, Paula Rego, an artist who pertinaciously insists upon exposing the excesses of emotion that even Greek tragedy coyly consigned backstage, would undoubtedly have been kicked out of the yard.

3Hers is an anti-Platonic aesthetic of unrestraint, within which ‘the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ (Blake, 1990, xviii), and she claims that she knows a painting is ready when she is ashamed of what it reveals (Rego quoted in Kent, 1998, 15; Rodrigues da Silva, 1998, 11). Her pictures abound in sex, politics and religion, much like outbursts of bad manners in the midst of polite dinner party conversation. And it is that rudeness that transposes what I argue are sui generis history paintings into the sphere of what in the eighteenth century developed as the genre of Civic Painting or Art for the Public Good.

4By then, the task of refuting Plato’s diatribes against the arts — which Aristotle had left only half accomplished (Gellrich, 1988) — was well underway. John Barrell has traced a shift in the perception of art’s function in the eighteenth century from the promotion of private virtues to that of public ones. It is in the context of this shift that he locates the rise of a civic Humanist Theory of painting that sought to recuperate a commitment to and belief in art as performing a public duty, namely that of fostering of a spirit of citizenship and a passion for the ‘commonweal’ (Barrell, 1986, 5).

In the early decades of the eighteenth century in England, the most influential attempts to provide the practice of painting with a theory were those which adopted the terms of value of the discourse we now describe as Civic Humanism. The republic of the fine arts was understood to be structured as a political republic; the most dignified function to which painting could aspire was the promotion of the public virtues; and the genres of painting were ranked according to their tendency to promote them. As only the free citizen members of the political republic could exhibit those virtues, the highest genre, History-Painting, was primarily addressed to them, and it addressed them rhetorically, as an orator addresses an audience of citizens who are his equals, and persuades them to act in the interests of the public. (Barrell, 1986, 1)

For writers like George Turnbull, James Thomson and Anthony Shaftesbury, painting was a liberal art, concerned with depicting not the material but the ideal aspect of objects. Thus, rather than mechanical mimesis that neglected the loftier regions of intellectual meditation, as deplored by Plato, painting, like the other liberal arts, guarded the mind and society against corruption by encouraging public virtue, a civic spirit and a love of the common good (Barrell, 1986, 11–14).

  • 1 Whether through an error of reference or as the result of rather free interpretation, John Paul II’ (...)

5Curiously, the project of art’s moral rehabilitation, which Plato’s onslaught had arguably rendered necessary, has more recently been taken up in an unlikely quarter, and moreover in the context of an argument that rings with unexpected echoes of both Platonism and Civic Humanism: namely an open letter by Pope John Paul II to artists (John Paul II, 1999). Departing from Plato himself, albeit in a different text and in a different vein (Plato, 1975), the Pope entered the fray by assigning the artist, and artistic creation, the position through which humanity attains its closest proximity to God: ‘in artistic creation, more than in any other activity, man reveals himself as “the image of God” […] by exercising creative command over the universe around him’ (John Paul II, 1999, 3). While at pains to emphasize that ‘the infinite distance between the Creator and His creature’ remains intact, John Paul II rescued art (or at least a certain type of supposedly sacral art) from the charge of immorality, via the Platonic route of beauty. The artist, as the conduit of beauty to humanity, becomes also the transmitter of morality, following the Platonic tenet that beauty is the physical expression of goodness, and goodness the metaphysical precondition of beauty: ‘the power of Good took refuge in the essence of Beauty’ (Plato, 1975, 79–95).1

6John Paul’s exhortation to artists, encouraging them in the pursuit of inspirational and moral creativity (‘beauty will save the world’, 16), presupposes, of course, a brand of art at one with the particular status quo he represented. Such specificities aside, beauty (art) for the social good (‘society needs artists […] in order to guarantee the growth of the individual and the progress of the community, through that sublime art form which is “the art of education”’, John Paul II, 1999, 5), makes him the improbable bedfellow of that zeal for the commonweal of the eighteenth century Civic Humanists referred to above:

Society needs artists, in the same way that it needs scientists, technicians, workers, experts, witnesses to the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who might guarantee the growth of the individual and the progress of humanity […]. In the vast panorama of each nation, artists have their allocated place. It is precisely when they obey their artistic genius in the fulfillment of works of true validity and beauty, that they enrich not only the nation’s and the whole of humanity’s cultural heritage, but also render a social service directed at the common good. (John Paul II, 1999, 5)

The common good, of course, is only ever that from a limited, inevitably narrow point of view. One (wo) man’s meat is almost invariably another’s poison. I wish to conclude this book with a proposal. Paula Rego’s work of the last decade, conveniently, from the point of view of linking it chronologically to the Civic Humanist theory of art, has included some recent works sourced in the work of the eighteenth-century painter William Hogarth, possibly British art’s best-known social commentator and pictorial moralist as well as lampooner of the status quo. Not coincidentally, the theme she selected from his work was that of marriage (à la mode, his and her versions respectively). In her rendition, as might be expected, mothers rather than fathers broker marriage and money deals, and husbands rather than wives languish or die untimely deaths (Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode, figs. 8.1 and 8.2; Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (After Hogarth Triptych), figs. 8.3; 8.4; 8.5).

Fig. 8.1 William Hogarth, Marriage à-la-Mode 2 (The Tête à Tête) (c. 1743). Oil on canvas 69.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London. Wikimedia, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Marriage_A-la-Mode_2,_The_T%C3%AAte_%C3%A0_T%C3%AAte_-_William_Hogarth.jpg

Fig. 8.1 William Hogarth, Marriage à-la-Mode 2 (The Tête à Tête) (c. 1743). Oil on canvas 69.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London. Wikimedia, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Marriage_A-la-Mode_2,_The_T%C3%AAte_%C3%A0_T%C3%AAte_-_William_Hogarth.jpg

The cruel satirical streak that Hogarth and Rego share, and which perhaps initially attracted her to him for inspiration, gestures towards another trait common to both, namely the propensity for morality with wit and also very much with a twist.

Fig. 8.2 William Hogarth, Marriage à-la-Mode 1, The Marriage Settlement (c. 1743). Oil on canvas 69.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London. Wikimedia, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Marriage_A-la-Mode_1,_The_Marriage_Settlement_-_William_Hogarth.jpg

Fig. 8.2 William Hogarth, Marriage à-la-Mode 1, The Marriage Settlement (c. 1743). Oil on canvas 69.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London. Wikimedia, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Marriage_A-la-Mode_1,_The_Marriage_Settlement_-_William_Hogarth.jpg

Fig. 8.3 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (The Betrothal after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 160 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.

Fig. 8.3 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (The Betrothal after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 160 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.

Fig. 8.4 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (Lessons after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 90 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.

Fig. 8.4 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (Lessons after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 90 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.

Fig. 8.5 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (The Shipwreck after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 160 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.

Fig. 8.5 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (The Shipwreck after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 160 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.

Of course, nobody is perfect. Curiously, and not irrelevantly here, just as Genesis excludes women from morality (and therefore, Platonically, from beauty) in the aftermath of Eve’s purloined apple, so too the Civic Humanist approach to art would exclude Rego from the production of Civic Art and history painting, due to an innate ‘imbecility of the female mind’ (quoted in Barrell, 1986, 66):

That theory assumes that, as Shaftesbury had put it, ‘Ladies hate the great manner’; that women cannot understand History-Paintings, which are public and idealised works, the comprehension of which demands an understanding of public virtue, an ability to generalize, and ‘an acquaintance with the grand outline of human nature’, which (whether by nature or nurture) is denied to women, who are obliged to remain ‘satisfied with common nature’. If the ‘ladies’ cannot discuss history-paintings, that is because it has been presumed impossible for them to learn how to do so. Portraits, however, work in terms of ‘personal’ ideas; they aim to present particular likenesses; where they represent virtue, they favour the private virtues; and they gratify the vanity of those who sit for them, and so of women especially, who are known to be especially vain. That women are happy to discuss portraits only confirms their inability to comprehend the higher, the public genre of art. (Barrell, 1986, 68)

In view of this, Paula Rego’s work, seeking as it does to challenge traditional historiography by, among other things, inscribing women into history, offers us a triple twist. First, simply by virtue of her work being that of a woman engaged, albeit largely antagonistically, in dialogue with the master narratives of her country or countries — Portugal and Britain — in different periods. Second, because the civic message her work extends, and the public service it seeks to render — albeit very much out of step with some implied moral principles of the status quo, religious or otherwise — nonetheless advance areas of ethical and political debate. The result, whatever the final position adopted, will probably be a series of paradigm shifts in the attribution of guilt and blamelessness in a variety of contexts. ‘A law which reverses another law makes for a surprise’ (Rego and Bessa-Luís, 2001, 118). And third, because, as these images become reinscribed within the specific historical referents that anchor them, the very fabric of human freedom is exposed as fragile.

  • 2 The triptych is a format traditionally used to depict religious scenes, specifically events relatin (...)

7With reference to the cycle of her own Marriage à la Mode (After Hogarth Triptych) Rego makes the following remarks: ‘this all takes place in Portugal in the 1940s during Salazar’s dictatorship. The rules were very strong and people had to cheat to survive. […] The girl is doing what she feels she must do: be obedient to her husband. It’s a little bit of a rape, I guess’ (Gleadell, 2000, 54). The ‘little bit of a rape’, startlingly, takes place within an unholy composition that sees Hogarth’s six-part piece truncated, into, of all things, a triptych format, with all the sacramental implications this entails.2

8The genre of the triptych, as observed previously, was traditionally reserved for scenes from the birth and life of Jesus, but here it gestures instead towards secular droits de seigneur, exercised now not over semi-willing virginal handmaidens but instead over reluctant daughters compelled into wedlock by their parents (fathers): in either case, whether the girl in question is a hesitant Virgin Mary or a non-consenting daughter, what we are dealing with in each case is arguably ‘a little bit of a rape’. In a typical Rego twist, however, in reply to a question as to what was inside the bag in Lessons after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth, fig. 8.4, centre panel), the artist, possibly channelling Artemisia Gentileschi (fig. 4.47), one of her female precursors, as well as her own Judith in Crivelli’s Garden (fig. 3.6), replied: ‘Well, heads, maybe. To survive, women had to do a few decapitations. When the man was asleep, up she comes, and whoosh, off with his head! […] She’s quite tough. She’s got to clear things up. Life goes on’. (Rego, quoted in Gleadell, 2000, p. 54).

9In Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, Leo Steinberg discusses what he calls ‘the plight of the public’ faced with the challenges and irritations of radically new art, but also the disconcertingly ‘rapid domestication of the outrageous’ and the way in which ‘the time lapse between shock received and thanks returned gets progressively shorter’, turning ‘enfants terribles into elder statesmen’ with ever escalating speed (Steinberg, 1975, 5–6). But not always, perhaps. In reply to a question regarding men’s reaction to her works on abortion, Rego replied that ‘they don’t look, or if they do, they do so with difficulty. […] [The pictures] were well received as art, but their content was not mentioned. Art can conceal many things. […] If the colours are pretty, they attract, but then you see it, and ouch!… ’ (Rego quoted in Marques Gastão, 2002, 40). In these final pages I should wish to contend that Paula Rego’s work endures within a paradox, whereby her critical and popular success, and the extraordinary saleability of her pictures coexist with the probability that a clear-sighted, fully comprehending acceptance of those images by the establishment (beyond an instinctive appreciation of their visually pleasing dimensions — ‘if the colours are pretty, they attract’) should only be possible in the aftermath of a sea-change in the world she depicts, and which her work would therefore have helped to tame. Like a girl, and her dog.

10Her pictures contain muchthat iseroticbut also frightening, sometimes frightening because erotic, and vice-versa. As argued previously, in the Western sexualized tradition of the visual arts, a presupposed (male) gaze looked, and a (female) body was looked at. But the first voyeuristic moment in iconography and literature, the paradigmatic instant that set the ball rolling, was the moment when Psyche raised her lamp to spy out the truth about Cupid, the mysterious lover who visited her in the night and upon whom she had previously not been allowed to gaze. Curiously, then, and I would hazard threateningly, the first voyeur was a voyeuse, a situation that clearly demanded a gender reversal and was duly set to rights by ensuing traditions. Paula Rego’s iconoclastic impact takes us back to Psyche and to the darkest reaches of our psyches. She breaks (bad) old habits and reverses habitual power organizations, allowing us to see and think anew, as women, men and citizens. It has been said that her works tend to elicit from women the slightly nervous complicity of those who see their most secret thoughts and wishes given scandalous but welcome exposure: ‘It is not often given to women to recognize themselves in painting, still less to see their private world, their dreams, the insides of their heads, projected on such a scale and so immodestly’ (Greer, 1988, 34). And Rego, herself proclaiming, as quoted previously, that her work is ‘always, always about revenge’, has laid down a mission statement: ‘I can make it so that women are stronger than men in the pictures. I can turn the tables and do as I want. I can make women stronger. I can make them obedient and murderous at the same time’ (Rego, quoted in MacDonald, 1998, 7).

11For this relief, much thanks. Rego herself once said that the problem with art education is that it ensures that its recipients cannot see things, that they can not see them, they are able to avoid seeing them, like those ostrich women she painted in the past. Or rather, unlike those ostriches (fig. 3.22), who unnervingly tend to look things in the eye, rather than burying their heads in the sand, even when, as was the case with Psyche, looking comes at a heavy price.

12In The Female Eunuch Germaine Greer — who has both written about Paula Rego and been portrayed by her — notoriously maintained that ‘women have very little idea of how much men hate them’ (Greer, 1985, 249). Blake Morrison, who has written about Paula Rego and whose poem, ‘Moth’, she illustrated, also wrote ‘The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper’, already mentioned. The subtext within this poem written in Yorkshire dialect about Peter Sutcliffe, the real-life serial killer of the 1970s and 80s, portrays him as quantitatively but not qualitatively different from many respectable men and pillars of the community. These, according to one writer, included some of the policemen who interviewed Sutcliffe on several different occasions, but failed to charge him because they laboured under the misapprehension that they were looking for someone absolutely different in his misogyny, rather than someone whose misogyny was in fact so disturbingly like theirs (Smith, 1989):

It’s then I think on t’Ripper
an what e did an why,
an ow mi mates ate women,
an ow Pete med em die. (Morrison, 1987, 24)

  • 3 See for example Nicholas Willing’s comments to John McEwen on the chauvinism encountered by Paula R (...)

Morrison’s explorations of the darker reaches of male sexuality and sexual violence even within marriage (‘this curt fuck was how I paid her back’, Morrison, 1987, 37), lay bare various unpalatable human drives (misogyny, paedophilia, murder). And it is to these forces that Paula Rego has responded life-long, with a contrary gender sign, proportional insolence and a hijacked scalpel that manifestly cuts two ways. As a young woman in Portugal, and for years as a much patronized painter’s wife in Britain, she stumbled upon the shockingly smug script of an ideological project from which both women and their stories had been written out.3 Or painted out: literally brushed aside from ‘a visual field for art in which feminine inscriptions [were] not only rendered invisible through exclusion or neglect but made illegible because of the phallocentric logic which allows only one sex’ (Pollock, 1999, 102). Her reaction has been an ongoing sibylline twisting of that masculinist script, for purposes that ought to warn us and to frighten us. What underwrites her gallery of ruminative and savage heroines is the problem of unorthodoxy pitted against brutal conformity. Rego’s strategy, faced with the multifarious corporate and institutional facades of that conformity, has always been to respond with proportionate forcefulness, an approach whose other name is tit-for-tat. Following a parallel agenda to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reformist zeal which has variously inspired her (Hogarth, Eça de Queirós), but with recourse to the metaphors of her opponents (and like certain angels in her work) she is cruel, sometimes though not necessarily in order to be kind. The difference, of course, is that the recipients of her cruelty and her kindness are invariably not the same.

13The relationship between artist and model, whether it is acknowledged or not, has always been hyper-determined by the struggle for power or against powerlessness, and by aggressiveness and defensiveness as common components. Throughout more than six decades of creative activity Paula Rego has produced pictures whose models are Portugal and Britain, her two motherlands, in all their permutations, from the personal to the political. And in echo of some of Portugal’s and Britain’s most renowned writers and creative artists throughout the centuries, her relationship to those motherlands, like theirs, has not been devoid of ambivalence. Let us count the ways they loved it.

This is the happy homeland, my beloved,
To which if Heaven permit my safe return,
With my life’s mission now achieved,
May that light with me now cease to burn. (Camões)

Luís de Camões, sixteenth-century Portugal’s own bard, was inspired by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s first sea voyage to India in 1497. His epic poem, The Lusiads (The Portuguese, from the old term for Portugal, Lusitânia) was published in 1572, — one year before his own death — and not long before the military disaster at Alcácer Quibir in 1578 that saw Portugal come under the dominion of Spain for sixty years. Even at the time of The Lusiads’ publication, the nation’s early imperial growing pains had begun to change almost without transition into the arthritis of over-expansion, and its territorial holdings in the East Indies were already beginning to unravel. Against the weight of scholarly opinion, this critic remains unpersuaded that the net balance of jingoistic patriotism versus imperial doubt in The Lusiads is weighted in favour of the motherland in her empire-building capacity. Paraphrasing James V of Scotland, quoted earlier, for the Portuguese it began with Africa and it ended with Africa. And not just for the Portuguese.

14In Out of Africa, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), bleached Scandinavian in an African context that nonetheless intoxicated and imaginatively captivated her beyond any possibility of recovery — the ultimate act of terrorism on the part of an empire that does after all strike back in mysterious ways — wrote poignantly of the postcolonial uncertainty facing the erstwhile colonizer:

If I know a song of Africa […] of the giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me? […] But these communications from Africa come to me in a strange, unreal way, and are more like shadows, or mirages, than like news of a reality. (Blixen, 1988, 75–76)

Elsewhere the answer to her inconsolable longing, the immobilization of flickering meaning, is attempted, curiously, in the best tradition of a European lyrical lament:

You must not think that I feel, in spite of it having ended in such defeat, that my ‘life has been wasted’ here, or that I would exchange it with that of anyone I know. […] She may be more gentle to others, but I hold to the belief that I am one of Africa’s favourite children. A great world of poetry has revealed itself to me and taken me to itself here, and I have loved it. I have looked into the eyes of lions and slept under the Southern Cross, I have seen the grass of the great plains ablaze and covered with delicate green after the rains, I have been the friend of Somali, Kikuyu, and Masai, I have flown over the Ngong Hills, — ‘I plucked the best rose of life […]’. (Blixen, 1981, 416)

Blixen was arguably whistling in the dark. Her enduring postcolonial self-doubt shares a species similarity with Camões’s imperial ambivalence. The latter, as argued previously, has echoed down generations of Portuguese creative life, and never more emphatically than in the work of this artist.

15Paula Rego is Portuguese and has often said that her work is always about Portugal. One can take this to mean many things. Here, I will take ‘Portugal’ to mean those forces of gender, autocracy and racial conflict that preoccupy her in all her work. But these of course are not uniquely Portuguese problems, and neither is Rego entirely Portuguese: she is also British (Dame Paula Rego, no less), has spent most of her life in Britain and has been influenced by its reality in her art. It is reasonable to say, therefore, that in the concluding remarks that follow, hyphenating ‘Portugal’ and ‘Britain’ will not impugn her statement about her national influences.

  • 4 Following the independence of the African colonies in 1975, those born in those territories were el (...)

16In Portuguese, tellingly perhaps, the standard reply to the question ‘how are you’ is not the automatic ‘fine’ expected elsewhere, but, more often than not, a gloomier menos mal (‘less bad’, not so different, after all, from the English ‘not too bad’). This Portuguese ‘less bad’ may translate as a grudging admission that things could be worse, but paradoxically, and equally revealingly, it conveys also both cloying pessimism and the realistic assessment of only relative improvement, both individually and collectively. Post-imperial Portugal is a nation in the grip of enduring contradictions: mariological reverence for maternity side by side with chauvinistic denigration of women; pro-European modernity hand in hand with Atlantic imperial nostalgia; nouveau-democracy in the face of counter-meritocracy and ingrained civic discrimination. The latter allegation requires some elaboration. The Portuguese fixation upon its lost empire in the aftermath of the independence of the remaining colonies in Africa, has coexisted with a continuing resentment against the last generation of empire builders, who in 1975 returned (or travelled for the first time) to the European ‘motherland’, to no warm welcome from those who had stayed at home. The economic difficulties resulting from the loss of colonial revenue were compounded by the arrival in a small country, in the space of less than two years, of one million Portuguese citizens from the erstwhile colonies, as well as a few rare black holders of Portuguese passports. The longing for the lost empire — which endures to this day in Portugal, with considerable lack of historical self-reflection and proportionate political incorrectness regarding the moral implications of imperialism — goes hand in hand with two social phenomena: institutional racism towards the small number of black incomers from those former Portuguese ‘provinces’;4 and a persistent resentment against the white so-called retornados or returnees, who had been the keepers of the imperial goose that laid the golden eggs. To a greater or lesser degree — largely depending on skin colour and ease of identification — a quarter of a century later both groups continue to suffer from ostracism in their land of origin or of post-colonial adoption. The irony of a grave lack of self-knowledge, as evinced by a longing for empire that runs in parallel with a hatred of empire-builders (white colonials) and empire-fodder (black citizens) alike, is aggravated in the case of a country such as Portugal, whose dominant religion in theory trumpets the merits of universal love. How white was Jesus? At a guess, not Aryan. Just like most Portuguese people.

17The self-insight that Paula Rego seeks to impose upon her fellow countrymen through her art, therefore, may be interpreted as a case of administering to the nation a taste of its own medicine, or, to put it another way, forcing it to practice what it preaches: ‘to thine own self be true’. Arguably the most remarkable aspect of Rego’s work is the way in which, echoing a previous remark, she compels her viewers, whether as individuals, groups or nations, to self-insight, and makes it at the very least difficult not to see.

18We may be talking about Portugal, but in the United Kingdom too, in the aftermath of an empire on which the sun never set, with all that entailed (unresolved Irish ‘Troubles’, Scottish dreams of independence, the burning of English-owned second homes in Wales, the diatribes of Enoch Powell, race riots, endemic racial inequality, Windrush, UKIP, Brexit, xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism) all this may apply also to a (dis) United Kingdom and beyond it to a world more than ever torn by a hatred of difference, be it of gender, colour or religion.

19Picasso stated in relation to Cézanne, and Steinberg discussed in connection with them both, the possibility that modern art is always born of anxiety and that its function is to transmit that anxiety to the spectator, creating in him or her ‘a genuine existential predicament’. Such pictures, like ‘God, who demands a sacrifice of Abraham in violation of every moral standard […] are arbitrary, cruel, irrational, demanding your faith, while [making] no promise of future rewards’ (Steinberg, 1975, 15). So too, Paula Rego’s paintings and pastels disrupt familiar ways of looking at the world, and violate barriers that, once breached, turn that world upside down, thereby transforming history into stories and vice-versa. In what are, in an idiosyncratic sense of the term, life paintings, she addresses births, loves, marriages and deaths that do not necessarily or even often come to fruition. Time has passed between the early and recent political paintings, but it would seem, at least in this artist’s semi-apocalyptic vision, that little has altered in significant areas of men’s and women’s lives, as signalled perhaps by the redundant, unworn watch, discarded on the floor of a timeless room (Untitled n. 3, fig. 4.24). This scene could be located in any place, at any time, including here and now, where women and children, born and unborn, suffer and die. How are we doing, then, as a nation? As two nations? As a world?

20At best, less bad.

21I will attempt a less despondent conclusion. In Karen Blixen’s novella, ‘Babette’s Feast’, the eponymous protagonist is a French woman who in the past had been head chef in Paris’s Café Royal, cooking for the rich and beautiful, and now lives in remote Jutland, in exile from the restored royalists, after the fall of the Paris Commune. She leads a life of obscurity in a grey, puritanical Danish village. After twelve years of cooking boiled split-cod and bread-and-ale soup for the two spinster sisters who took her in, Babette wins ten thousand francs in a lottery back home, and persuades her two mistresses to allow her to cook a special meal for the annual celebration of the birth of the community’s spiritual father. At the end of a dinner for twelve of indescribable splendour, the two sisters discover with horror and gratitude that Babette has spent the entirety of her windfall on the meal. A meal whose ripples will turn out to extend well beyond the sphere of that evening’s gastronomic delights, by introducing the ascetic community to a brief moment of bodily, sensual and emotional self-indulgence. As the radical shift takes place from pain to pleasure and from puritanism to pulchritudinous self-abandon, Babette’s culinary feat, or feast, is acknowledged by the two sisters for what it is: food as art, and art as the universal solvent that changes lives. Babette, an unorthodox ministering Christ to twelve bemused disciples stranded at a body/soul crossroads, trades the cost of a return ticket to her old life for this last supper. The latter, like its biblical precursor, stands as a final but also foundational moment of creativity. Her gesture does not go to waste. It finds an improbable audience but absolute understanding in the two spinster sisters, for whom the meal, with the utmost literalness, opened up worlds without end:

‘Yet this is not the end! I feel, Babette, that this is not the end. In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be! Ah!’ she added, the tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Ah, how you will enchant the angels! ’ (Blixen, 1986, 68)

Babette, alleged revolutionary and petroleuse with a murky past, is the artist-cook who formerly had brought occasional shudders of apprehension to her mistresses’ spines, but for the duration of one evening brings them shivers of delight. The sweet and sour perils of pleasure she discloses to them are not unlike the experience that Rego’s work offers to our delighted and appalled eyes. Feasting on these paintings is like dining with panthers. There may be a price to pay, which here entails seeing set out plainly what previously we had not dared even to think. Paula Rego is the unforgiving creator of Dog Women, bitches who snarl at the heels of their masters and urinate on the bed of aesthetic, ethical and political conventions (Bad Dog, fig. 6.14).

  • 5 Adamastor (from the Greek ‘adamastos’ or ‘untamed’) was a creation of Luís de Camões in The Lusiads(...)

22In Portuguese navigational charts of the fourteenth century the warning ‘from here onward there be dragons’ indicated the places where the world was thought to end, ships fell off the edge and were destroyed by dragons (or monsters).5

Fig. 8.6 Jorge Colaço, Adamastor (Sea Monster) (1907). Tiled panel. Buçaco Palace Hotel, Buçaco, Portugal. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Palace_Hotel_do_Bu%C3%A7aco_-_Azulejo.jpg

Fig. 8.6 Jorge Colaço, Adamastor (Sea Monster) (1907). Tiled panel. Buçaco Palace Hotel, Buçaco, Portugal. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Palace_Hotel_do_Bu%C3%A7aco_-_Azulejo.jpg
  • 6 Rudyard Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Inclusive Edition, 1885–1918 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, (...)

In this artist’s case, a lifetime of depicting families and other animals can be summed up as a career fine-tuned in crossing forbidden lines beyond which, very likely, dragons recline, digesting their prey. Needless to say, she-dragons: that female of the species which as Kipling well knew, was ‘more deadly than the male’.6

23Is Paula Rego, deadlier indeed than most of her male peers, themselves in the end all too human? All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is the title of an exhibition that opened at Tate Britain in March 2018. In that show, Rego’s work featured alongside such luminaries as Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Euan Uglow and others. Rego, however, like the other women artists (Dorothy Meade, Celia Paul, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown) was elided from the subtitle of the exhibition. When promoting blockbuster shows, it would appear, if she is a woman, even an artist of the enormous renown of Paula Rego, falls foul not so much of ‘Me Too’ but ‘Me Neither’. No need to signpost the little women. In this show, Rego’s contribution was the (in) famous image The Family (fig. 2.14). As discussed in chapter 2, this picture, created in the last year of the life of her husband Victor Willing, as already mentioned, was initially to be called The Raising of Lazarus. In the end, however, human beings are indeed all too human, and seldom rise from the dead — not even temporary humans, such as the Son of God. Or at least not if they are portrayed/erased by this woman. And why should they? For once, let us forget men on crosses and look at Mary instead. Let’s concentrate on the woman. Us too. Us now.

Fig. 8.7 Paula Rego, War (2003). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, 160 x 120 cm. Photo courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved, https://www.wikiart.org/​en/​paula-rego/​war-2003

Fig. 8.7 Paula Rego, War (2003). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, 160 x 120 cm. Photo courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved, https://www.wikiart.org/​en/​paula-rego/​war-2003

24I see this artist as a visual anarchist, a Bluebeard in drag, in whose bloody studio artefacts are made from dismembered and reassembled bodies and attitudes: literally so when one thinks of her early work, made of paintings cut up and reassembled to gruesome pedagogical effect (Iberian Dawn, e-fig. 3; When We Used to Have a House in the Country, fig. 1.2); or works for which throughout the years she has occasionally used dolls as models (The Ambassador of Jesus, fig. 3.4), or toys made especially for her (War, fig. 8.7). This dreamer of serene demons would undoubtedly have been kicked out of Plato’s dull backyard. But in an alternative paradise populated by scary cherubs, how she will enchant the angels.

Notes

1 Whether through an error of reference or as the result of rather free interpretation, John Paul II’s text, p. 4, gives as the reference for this quotation Plato’s Philebus, 65a. This passage in fact reads as follows: ‘Then if we cannot use just one category to catch the good let’s take this trio, fineness, commensurability, truth (aletheia), and treating them as a single unit say that this is the element in the mixture that we should most correctly hold responsible, that it is because of this as something good that such a mixture becomes good. The connection between Beauty and Good appears to be more fully developed in the dialogue between Socrates and Diotima in The Symposium, 79–95.

2 The triptych is a format traditionally used to depict religious scenes, specifically events relating to the life of Jesus Christ. Rego uses this format controversially, here in the Abortion Series.

3 See for example Nicholas Willing’s comments to John McEwen on the chauvinism encountered by Paula Rego as the wife of a great painter who was seen as herself dabbling in painting (McEwen 1997, 242). Also see his BBC2 documentary Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories, dir. by Nick Willing, BBC (2017).

4 Following the independence of the African colonies in 1975, those born in those territories were eligible for Portuguese citizenship if they had at least one Portuguese ascendant in the second degree (grandparent) of the direct line.

5 Adamastor (from the Greek ‘adamastos’ or ‘untamed’) was a creation of Luís de Camões in The Lusiads. He was a sea giant banished by Doris, a sea nymph, for falling in love with her daughter, Tethis. His domain became the sea around what is now Cape Town in South Africa. At that point the Atlantic and the Indian oceans meet, and the sea is notoriously turbulent. When the Portuguese sought a sea route to India at the end of the fifteen century, countless ships were lost in the attempt to sail around the Cape, which became known as the Cape of Torments. The legend created by Camões and perpetuated by subsequent writers, poets and artists, attributed the violence of the waves to the rage of Adamastor, who guarded his kingdom against intruders and swallowed any ship that sought to enter it. The first Portuguese fleet, under the command of Bartolomeu Dias, finally managed to navigate around the Cape in 1488.

6 Rudyard Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Inclusive Edition, 1885–1918 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 8.1 William Hogarth, Marriage à-la-Mode 2 (The Tête à Tête) (c. 1743). Oil on canvas 69.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London. Wikimedia, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Marriage_A-la-Mode_2,_The_T%C3%AAte_%C3%A0_T%C3%AAte_-_William_Hogarth.jpg
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/9786/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 35k
Titre Fig. 8.2 William Hogarth, Marriage à-la-Mode 1, The Marriage Settlement (c. 1743). Oil on canvas 69.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London. Wikimedia, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Marriage_A-la-Mode_1,_The_Marriage_Settlement_-_William_Hogarth.jpg
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/9786/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre Fig. 8.3 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (The Betrothal after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 160 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/9786/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Fig. 8.4 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (Lessons after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 90 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/9786/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 26k
Titre Fig. 8.5 Paula Rego, Marriage à la Mode (The Shipwreck after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth) (1999). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium 150 x 160 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/9786/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 30k
Titre Fig. 8.6 Jorge Colaço, Adamastor (Sea Monster) (1907). Tiled panel. Buçaco Palace Hotel, Buçaco, Portugal. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA, https://commons.wikimedia.org/​wiki/​File:Palace_Hotel_do_Bu%C3%A7aco_-_Azulejo.jpg
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/9786/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 51k
Titre Fig. 8.7 Paula Rego, War (2003). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, 160 x 120 cm. Photo courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved, https://www.wikiart.org/​en/​paula-rego/​war-2003
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/9786/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k