Paula Rego @ Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Paula Rego distils well-known stories and social issues into surprising and charged portraits

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 10 Feb 2020
  • Paula Rego

Narrative intrigue and political urgency form a dual momentum for the six-room survey of Paula Rego's paintings in Modern Two.

In Room One, Rego’s Pop-inspired abstract collages riotously obscure references to the oppressive political circumstances in Portugal at the time. Disorganised, violent and menacing, Centaur (1964) has as its centre an inverse of the titular mythical creature: a bloodied-looking human body and bull's head surrounded by abstract cartoonish characters, poised to attack.

Over the following decades and the next room, Rego's work becomes weightily figurative, laden with knobbly flesh, broad-limbed women, and at times a claustrophobic sense of psychological tension. See Rego's Abortion paintings (1998-9), complex windows into the unofficial medical set-ups necessitated by conservative law. They were made to furnish the debate surrounding the 1998 referendum on abortion in Portugal. Rego's figures are often in uncomfortable poses or curled in pain, staring with an implacable vulnerability. She renders their forms robustly, in dense accumulations of pastel or brush marks.

Other works engage more literary references, like Snow White in which a sly-faced woman inspects the underwear of her infant daughter dressed in a Disney Snow White costume. The girl’s craggy and wisened face is an acutely disturbing visual of a childhood ruined by parental abuse – a theme that continues in the Female Genital Mutilation (2009) sequence.

Rego is clear that she isn't interested in showing 'blood, gore or anything to sicken'. Nevetheless, at their most effective the images are cut across by, and look out into the gallery with the figures’ hate-filled glances like in The Maids (1987), the Abortion series’ defiant gazes or the miserably resolute staring of her Dog Women series. Through careful observation and classically informed technique, each of Rego’s works is a singular and synecdochal encounter with well-known myths, stories or political situations.

Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance, Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art (Modern Two), Edinburgh, until Sun 19 Apr, £6.50-11.50