Progression of Art
The Firemen of Alijo
This is an early example of Rego's collage work. Rego became interested in collage and large-scale painting from a young age, and began to combine at once abstract and figurative compositions with Surrealist technique. Inspired by the automatic experiments of the Surrealist Movement, Rego sought to free both herself and her practice from the constraints of tradition and rationality and to explore instead the unfettered and unconscious mind. In its richness of color and vivid kinetic energy, the picture not only recalls the canvases of Joan Miro (who Rego herself has quoted as an influence) but also seventeenth-century Indian illustrations of the epic Ramayana tale.
Created whilst Portugal was still ruled under the repressive regime of Salazar, this collage can be read as both as a political challenge and in turn as a re-imagining of hierarchy. There are many shapes that are almost human but not quite. They are twisted and undergoing various stages of metamorphosis, all squabbling, rising, and fighting for some sort of power. The transformation of different shapes into others also seems to pose questions about rigid boundaries - what is the self and what is other? Who has power and who is powerless? These questions, as well as the medium of the piece, recall work by Nancy Spero. Spero also created hybrid woman/animal figures and scattered them across the college plane. As well as exposing pain and suffering, both artists seek to protect and elevate their imaginary creaturely beings.
Acrylic paint, oil pastel, charcoal, graphite, resin, ink, paper and aluminium foil on canvas - Tate
The Policeman's Daughter
In this striking painting, a young woman sits on a chair and polishes a brown boot. The boot looks to be part of the uniform of the military police of Salazar's Portugal. During the regime, Salazar maintained control of the country through the use of secret police, as well as police informers. Portuguese citizens lived in fear that their friends or neighbours would report them for dissident acts and that they would be taken away. Though this young woman may only be polishing the boot, this painting asks questions about collaboration - do we see her as equally to blame in her father's actions? Can she too be held responsible for crimes against humanity?
The domestic feel of the interior space, the bare white room and presence of a family cat also demonstrates how political power structures readily invade the home. Rego exposes how power and corruption can pervert and conquer even the most commonplace and innocent of activities. The young woman's face is passive and we do not get a sense of her agency; we can only note the act itself, as if the overachingly repressive regime has successfully eradicated active personality. Here the confines of the interior space are particularly surreal. The tight inclosing perspective makes the viewer feel claustrophobic and recalls works by Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte.
Oil on Canvas - Saatchi Gallery
Though titled The Dance, there is much more going on in this picture than a simple celebratory act. Rego depicts two dancing couples, a dancing trio, and a much larger single figure to the side. The people do not necessarily look like they are at the same party, let alone dancing to the same music. The couples seem mostly entwined, particularly the couple to the left of centre, dancing tightly together. The trio represents a profound illustration on the passing of time; a grandmother, mother, and daughter move gracefully together through the cycle of life. Indeed, there is a poignant comparison to be made with this painting and that of the Dance of Life, made by Edvard Munch in 1899. Like the Norwegian Expressionist, Rego too is interested in how human behaviour changes according to whether we are alone, in a couple, or part of a group. She also shares with Munch an interest in the passing from the state of innocence to experience, and in this particular case, to setting a scene at night, the prime time for unconscious musings.
British writer, Lisa Appignanesi comments, "Everything here may be homely, yet everything is simultaneously mysterious. Despite the smiles on the faces, things aren't quite right in Rego's world." This may be partly to do with the mismatch of the dancing individuals represented, but also because of the dark and looming background; the moon illuminates the beach scene and there is a dark fortress positioned on a hill that stands behind. As previously mentioned, during the Estado Novo, political dissidence was severely punished, often with imprisonment. Alternatively, the fortress could represent the pain that always accompanies the experience of joy. The painting was completely not long after Willing's death and he is the model for one of the male figures. The fortress then could be a monument to grief and mourning, and the painting a general homage to the journey and loss of love.
Acrylic paint on paper on canvas - Tate
The model in this painting is Lila Nunes, Rego's most important and long-standing artistic companion. In Dog Woman a woman crouches on all fours, bends down with her toothy mouth open; she is contorted, her neck bent, and her eyes roll back. It is a striking and bestial position, and one almost unrecognisable from the routine movements and gestures of "civilised" day-to-day living. However, this woman is not being punished or suppressed, quite the contrary, she appears entirely unselfconscious, as though in this new extreme physical state she can somehow shed normal social embarrassments and feel freer.
The art critic Jackie Wullschlage has suggested that Rego paints in the "Iberian tradition of painting fear", and as such she makes comparisons with this "painting" (made using pastels) and those by El Greco, Goya, and Picasso. Indeed, it seems that in many of her works, Rego explores how the human can be transformed out of its "normal" states and move into more empowered ways of being. Rego herself commented of this image, "To be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden; that has very little to do with it [...] In these pictures every woman's a dog woman, not downtrodden, but powerful. To be bestial is good. It's physical. Eating, snarling, all activities to do with sensation are positive. To picture a woman as a dog is utterly believable." Rego aims to capture a new bodily freedom found for women through the emulation of an animal.
Pastel on canvas - Saatchi Gallery
Dancing Ostriches is one of a large series of paintings that Rego made in which she depicted muscular, stocky women stretching and preparing their bodies for a ballet performance. The series has an interesting genesis, as it seems to have been inspired both by Edgar Degas's paintings of ballerinas (which was also a lengthy extended series), as well as by a scene in the Disney's Fantasia when a group of ostriches wearing blue bows and ballet slippers perform the Dance of the Hours. The artist is ever eclectic in her gathering of inspiration. Furthermore, considered alongside another pastel done at the same time, The Bride, the Dancing Ostriches are all dressed in black, whilst the The Bride appears all in white; the contrast once again revealing Rego's continuing interest in the opposing states of innocence and experience, and of life and death.
In this painting, the woman who looks Portuguese - due to her olive skin and black hair - sits on a reclining seat. Her pose is very exaggerated provoking questions about what is happening in the image: is she posing, or has Rego decided to capture her in a moment of stretching? In this position, we note that the ballerina is decidedly more powerful looking than a classic ballerina. As in Dog Woman, Rego depicts the female body as capable and strong; a body that asks not be judged, but to be accepted in its weighty, assured, and decidedly earthbound presence.
Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium - Saatchi Gallery
Come to Me
Rego has often discussed the influence that literature has had on her work. This lithograph is taken from a series made in response to Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre (1847). In her illustrations for the book, Rego reveals and meditates upon the unsettling nature of Jane Eyre's life, whilst also showing Eyre herself to be a strong and powerful individual. In the same series of prints, Rego also explores Jean Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). In combining both texts, Rego explores the complexity that underlies a single narrative. Writer and critic, Marina Warner comments that in this series Rego explores "the conditions of her own upbringing, her formation as a girl and woman, and the oscillation between stifling social expectations and liberating female stratagems".
Jane Eyre is a remarkable book because it gives readers an insight into the mind of a child; here, Rego seems to be attempting to represent that, in her depiction of the moment in which Jane Eyre is in the horrifying 'red room': we feel the profound fear that she felt at that moment, with the strange red background providing shocking contrast to her dark dress. Eyre's face is contorted, and her hands grab at her garment. Surprisingly though, there is nothing in the image that is particularly frightening in and of itself: the fear, we could say, is not there. Perhaps then, Eyre, like Rego, is profoundly scared of the abstract notion of fear itself. Interestingly, the work looks forward to and bears strong resemblance to a series of drawings made by the artist in 2007 that deal specifically with depression. These drawings too feature one large and weighty female figure. Both the woman in Come to Me, and those of the depression series recall Albrecht Dürer's figure of Melencolia in his famous 1514 engraving on the subject.
Although made many years later, this image is reminiscent of Rego's earlier political collages. There is a flurry of chaotic human activity and as in the early compositions the background and foreground merge whilst the absurd characters, part human and part creature, play out a tragic scene. In this seemingly unreal space, which is neither inside nor outside, there appears to be something unsettling going on: a woman holds an injured child, whilst two more children in the forefront seem to be pleading, crying, or running away. Most odd of all though, is that all of these mentioned figures wear rabbit masks. Identity is covered, even erased, as is the sad result of war.
The painting not only recalls grotesque scenes made by the likes of George Grosz and Otto Dix, The New Objectivity artists who made comment on the utter chaos of war time Germany. It also brings to mind the work of the Belgian painter and printmaker, James Ensor. Ensor, like Rego was interested in using masks and other elements of theatrical staging as a tool of contrast that in turn powerfully reveals the most real, and sometimes most disturbing of human behaviours and emotions. Both artists seem to convey that when a mask goes on, people really are capable and subject to the most terrible of horrors.
Rego herself has said that the image is a response to photographs published in newspapers during the early days of the Iraq War. Upon seeing the horrors of certain images, she decided, "I would do a picture about these children getting hurt, but I turned them into rabbits' heads, like masks. It's very difficult to do it with humans, it doesn't get the same kind of feel at all. It seemed more real to transform them into creatures". Indeed, in transforming people into animals, Rego considers how we place sympathy and furthermore, what capacity we have to deal with extreme inhumanity. Perhaps it becomes easier/possible to engage with tragedy only when images are transformed to give other dimensions to what is otherwise one dimensional and indigestible explicit violence.
Pastel on paper aluminium - Tate Collection