Magic and Fear: ‘Looking In’ at Casa das Histórias Paula Rego
“Making drawings like this is not like drawing from life … it’s more like creating a story in visual terms. Also, it’s a world that you go into: if you have a small etching plate and you’re drawing on it, the world you are creating goes from your head to the plate; it’s not looking out, it’s looking in…”
– Paula Rego
From the end of the 1970s onwards, Angela Carter’s fiction brought sudden inspiration to a generation of women artists to delve into the canon of the fairy tale and reimagine what they found there. Perhaps in the process they might restore the transgressive pagan nature of the fairy tale to its powerful folkloric roots. Carter’s work recouped agency for her own fairy tale women and girls, turning the sexually proscriptive strategies of the stories on their heads. Not for her the passive country lass waiting to have her virginity devoured by the beast from the wood. More likely her girls would slit open the belly of a wolf, wear its fur, avenge Grandma and keep the knife handy. Better still, they might be the wolf themselves.
Whether directly influenced by Carter or not, Rego’s Fairy Tales (one of the collections which makes up the current ‘Looking In’ exhibition at Casa das Histórias Paula Rego in Cascais, Portugal), takes the project of reimagination to dazzling and ghastly limits. Surreal and feminist, each image might also be the cover of a classic Carter Virago paperback. As well as the sexual power dynamics inherent in our fairy tales, Rego is equally inspired by their elemental forces, their odd corruptions of nature, and the deep dark power of the uncanny that they encourage. From her works emerge the darkest elements of fairy tale that we have simply taken for granted through repetition and familiarity. No wonder poor Miss Muffet is frightened away; the spider which comes along to surprise her is as big as she is and has a human face (Little Miss Muffet I, 1989). In Baa Baa Black Sheep (1989), the sheep is a full head taller than the little girl from down the lane. He sits upright on a chair, posed like a man, caressing the child between his hooves and smiling down his nose with a look of soft lascivious ownership. The girl has her back to us so we can never know if she is terrified or ecstatic. Atop the creature’s head sits a pair of thick curlicued horns. He is not a sheep but a ram, Pan-like and devilish. In the background a curious boy tries to engage with the scene but is too far away to be of help or interest. To the right of the couple are stacked the ‘three bags full’, whether in penance or payment, who can tell.
“It isn’t nice in my mind,” is one typical Rego quote, and ‘Looking In’ provides all the macabre evidence you might need. It is also a mistress-class in technique, imagination, process, skilful determination, political urgency and wit. The show gathers an enormous range of Rego’s drawings and printworks on paper (plus a small amount of metal plate work), including pen and ink, etching, drypoint, lithograph and aquatint. Each selection is gathered around a theme that is being deeply explored by the artist; Fairy Tales, Children’s Crusade, Jane Eyre, and so on. The written interventions from Rego herself, either through translation from the Portuguese or her own delightfully brusque style, get straight to the point (‘It was a nightmare to do, because it takes forever’). The period covered is also vast, from her young days as a student at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in the 1950s, up to some of her darkest and most political work from the late noughties. Paula Rego has been with us forever and ever.
A highlight is the Peter Pan series (1992–3), a work of fantastical children’s literature condensed down to its nightmarish parts and expanded into new violent realms. Who else but Joel Schumacher has fully realised the dark gothic heart that sits inside J. M. Barrie’s famous children’s classic? The boy who will never age and never die, the levitating child with no shadow (and therefore no reflection, no soul?), the sprite who comes to the window in the night to fetch the lonely girl to a dimension that both is and isn’t part of our world, to rule over its population of lost orphans and hungry wild animals, terrorised by the pirate tyrant with a steel hook in place of a hand. In Rego’s fifteen etchings and aquatints devoted to Pan, both canonical and invented events take place, each one teasing out the loneliness, weirdness and horror that lie beneath the surface. As in her Fairy Tales, scale is contorted in monstrous ways so Captain Hook becomes a humongous ringleted ogre peering down over the tiny pyjamaed and vulnerable Lost Boys, little enough to eat. In one scene, Wendy lies prostrate, shot through her nightdress by an arrow. In another, she stitches an inky shadow into the soles of Peter’s bare feet. He is shirtless and arms akimbo, like Christ cut down just in time, but subject perhaps to new tortures, yet his smile remains calm and beatific. Expressions and experiences are mismatched throughout; are they seeing what we are seeing?
Of her elaborate explorations into Neverland, Rego writes with a suitably Carter-like mix of alacrity and gore:
“We feel differently about Peter Pan, you and I. I don’t think its whimsicality matters. It’s like the pretty colours in the etchings to attract the viewer’s eye. The story takes us to an underground world that has a sea in it (not unlike Kubla Khan), a child’s Inferno. The sugariness of motherly Wendy is poison. Captain Hook is foolishly dangerous. In the last etching a pregnant Wendy is stirring a blood soup. It’s all magic and fear.”
Sometimes Rego’s darkness is not drawn from the realm of literary imagination, but from life. The series Female Genital Mutilation (2009) is inevitably an horrific project; a miasma of the vulnerable bodies of Black girls, with twisted limbs and lifted skirts, featuring haunting figures bearing skull-like faces dominating these vulnerable young bodies. These life-size and life-like tableaux of pain prove too much of a shock for my friend and I on this sunny day on the Portuguese coast. But not all is darkness and despair. The Jane Eyre series (2001–02) is a kind of joyful satire cum heroine-worship of its titular character, where boisterous social scenes tower over the viewer in elaborate colours, beautiful shading and line work. The wide skirts seem to rustle and the aesthetic is of a children’s illustrated tale applied to terribly grown-up predicaments.
In the end though, my favourite image of all is not on paper on the wall of the gallery, but is a vision of the artist herself at work, presented in her own words:
“I drew once or twice after hours while I was at the National Gallery. That was the case when I made this etching for them after Witches at their Incantations by Salvator Rosa. I did it after hours because it was very difficult to draw. It is extraordinary when you copy a picture, you find out how different it is than what you thought it was. And then it settles back to being what it was after a bit, that’s why they used to teach people that way.”
Alice Walker, reflecting on the diaries of Van Gogh, describes how amidst the despair and turmoil of his life, the ‘real’ artist peeks through in those calm moments when he recounts the size and number of the canvases he has embarked upon or completed. This is what I read in Rego’s National Gallery memory. Deeply engaged in her craft, methodical and focused, unpicking the technique of an artistic forebear, learning and reflecting. But also that inescapable Gothicism of the scene itself; the artist poised over her easel, a coven of Witches emerging from under her pencil, the vast empty rooms above and behind her, repositories of millenia of art, Paula Rego taking her place amongst them, working away in the shadows.
‘Looking In – Paula Rego’ is on display at Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Cascais, Portugal, until 17 November 2019. The exhibition is curated by Catarina Alfaro. Casa das Histórias Paula Rego is part of the Cascais Museum Quarter, programmed by D. Luís I Foundation and Cascais City Hall.