Until 19th April 2020
The first-ever Paula Rego retrospective to be held in Scotland, this major exhibition, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, addresses challenging subjects with strong images that embrace surrealist and expressionist approaches to difficult topics. Obedience and Defiance, previously shown at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, includes over 80 loans, and is curated by Catherine Lampert, independent curator, a friend of Rego’s since 1981 and former director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery. The exhibition will also tour to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin next year.
Spanning Rego’s career over two floors at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two), we follow a relatively linear path from the 1960s through to 2012. The paintings, pastels, drawings and prints respond to issues including, in the first instance, António de Oliveira Salazar’s fascist regime in Portugal. These early subversive works use abstract collage techniques and combine political with personal to create angry, expressive art.
In the upstairs rooms, we can examine some familiar themes and motifs that Rego explores. Anthropomorphic animals and toys are playing-out the psychological complications of intimate and family relationships – narratives inspired by literature and cinema, subverted nursery rhymes, disguised references in the narrative of the artwork, and the ambiguity of mirrors and reflections. Anyone who has viewed a Rego artwork before will recognise at least one of those themes.
Rego is not afraid to tackle uncomfortable truths and the collective subconscious behind societal and cultural norms. Beginning with The Maids (1987), her later work symbolises how women organise spaces of disobedience within the cultural structure of society. The Dog Women series is one of her best-known, as lone women take on gestural characteristics of dogs.
The low turn-out in Portugal for a 1997 referendum – which failed to legalise abortion – prompted Rego to produce one of her most potent group of artworks. Indeed, they played a part in bringing to public view the unnecessary trauma of illegal abortion, resulting in a subsequent referendum ten years later, which led to legalised abortion. These artworks show young women, stoic and alone in their bleak environment while suffering the effects of an illegal abortion. Rego steers away from extreme images, inviting us to engage with the scenes fully.
Rego also produced influential works in response to the UK’s outlawing of female genital mutilation. Although her work resonates strongly with contemporary feminist and political issues around social injustice and gender discrimination, Rego has sought to tackle these topics in a visceral way that genuinely puts across the symbolic horror of these issues through art. The exhibition ends with some preparatory works showing Rego’s creative process and a looped 90-minute BBC Arts film made by her son, Secrets and Stories (2017).
It is the pastel work that stands out in this exhibition. Curator Catherine Lampert has confirmed that Rego prefers pastels as they can be applied with greater pressure than paint and can be built up in layers to significant effect. This is a rare opportunity to get close to the artwork to see the technique that creates these intensely physical fleshy limbs, torsos and feet.
Obedience and Defiance succeeds in putting forward Rego’s body of work as more complex and existential than a direct protest on the issues of gender inequality and the politics of oppression. She gets down to the bones of psychological and power relationships between men and women, parents and children, and the real complexity of gender roles in society. We are complicit in upholding the rules of the game as well as suffering the limitations of them. In using confessional elements from her own life, Rego manages to present authentic experiences that many are afraid to admit to. The works are full of content and complexity, so do allow yourself plenty of time to absorb this must-see retrospective, but note that the exhibition addresses challenging subjects and includes images of a suggestive and / or graphic nature, so parental and carer discretion may be required.
National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)
73 Belford Road,
Edinburgh EH4 3DS
Link image: Paula Rego – Untitled No. 4, 1998
With thanks to Artmag reviewer Julie Boyne.