On Paula Rego’s Feet

“And, they tell us, we at home
Live free from danger, they go out to battle: fools!
I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear
One child.”

Euripides, Medea (431 BCE)

So it’s been one year and nine months since I finished my MA at Chelsea College of Arts, and in the interim there has been one pandemic, four lockdowns, two new jobs, two old jobs, one new flat and many other smaller life changes besides. But, recently I managed to meet up with some MA comrades, five of us in the one place at the same time – the most we’ve managed since the beginning of the pandemic.

We had planned to visit the new MA Fine Art showcase at Chelsea, in support of the students of the two cohorts following ourselves, but first we had booked in to see the Paula Rego retrospective at Tate Britain, across the road. And it is my various recollections and observations of this show I’ll be discussing for the remainder of this discourse, in no particular order.

Paula Rego: Self Portrait in Red (oil paint, graphite, crayon and paper on canvas, 1966)

As a figurative painter, Rego’s subjects immediately impressed me with the slippery slimy sweaty quality of their skin, achieved by the use of pastel on paper or board; a technique she adopted in the latter half of her career. Pastel connects hand to pigment to surface with as little interim interference as possible, as movements from the body are directly translated as fabric and flesh.

This is a revelation that transforms her mid-career stiff, stage set acrylic paintings that swallow themselves up in their detail and intricacy until almost nothing is visible. It is also much preferable to her abstract earlier pieces, that make obscure references and suggest political messages amongst a storm of collaged texture, colour, shape; creating compositions that are impossible for the eye to comprehend more than one tiny piece at a time. They are tiring to look at, even if I quite like some of them. I guess what I like about these early pieces most is that they are so different to what I had in my head when I thought of Paula Rego’s oeuvre; a refreshingly surprising beginning.

Rego: Military Manoeuvres (gouache and acrylic paint on paper on canvas, 1975)

Rego’s roughly 1970’s to 1990’s practice can be characterised as large scale scenes featuring a cast of malevolent or victimised (or both) characters, and in the huge rooms of Tate Britain they seemed eerily like film sets, as if you could walk straight into their interiors. The heavy brush-strokes (not expressive but also not smoothly invisible) and artificial colours of the acrylic paint, and even the thick stage make up appearance of the figures depicted, enhanced this feeling of scene-painting, describing the narrative simply functionally. There were amazing details wherever the eye rested, such as carvings on furniture of tiny demonic figures fighting, but it felt like a relief to leave this period behind, and move into something lighter. Interspersed with these clunky, blocky interiors were flying, airy, ethereal works, different again to the earthy fleshy suffering bodies that came later in the 2000’s.

Rego: Return of the Native (watercolour and ink on paper, 1993)

Which brings us to my favourite of all the works in the retrospective, Rego’s Return of the Native from 1993. It’s a monumental watercolour which is so unusual, almost like a stained glass window with the purity of its pigments. The surface is rich with detail of vegetation, strange creatures, flowers, dolls, animals; in the top section of the painting a woman has collapsed amongst the foliage, her blue dress shining like a gemstone. The painting has a quality of wet, cold English rain, crisply chill rather than muddy, very befitting of the Thomas Hardy pastoral setting, as the painting is based on his novel of the same name. In Hardy the land is an equal character that shapes all the lives of the humans: their professions, names, language, customs, beliefs; so it is fitting that the landscape dwarfs the human drama in this painting.

Rego: War (pastel on paper on aluminium, 2003)

Another thing I enjoyed was Rego’s use of animals: cats, dogs, cows, bats, rabbits, foxes, birds which feature in almost every work in some degree, taking over completely in one series of paintings. Her animals of the 2000’s were much more unpleasant than if the scenes depicted had featured humans. This is obviously an extension of her interest in fables, myths, stories, in which animals are more real to us than people in our cultural narratives, more expressive and sympathetic than humans, more recognisable as our inner selves. The horrible broken faces in War (2003) particularly demonstrate this uncanny Watership Down trauma; based on a newspaper photograph of a war zone, we can easily turn the page to the next article, but Rego’s painting with the bloody rabbit substitutes was unforgettably shocking to me.

Rego: Lessons, after Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (pastel on paper on aluminium, 1999)

While not my favourite part of Rego’s body of work, it is impossible not to acknowledge or to be affected by her images depicting various female sufferings (pregnancy, care-giving, labour, abortion, grief) in such an emotionally visceral yet unusually matter of fact way. Rego is foremost an artist of suffering; her work encompasses a whole world of pain, which can be suffocating, overwhelming. However she does give a little breathing space. Her figures are frozen in the middle of a long slog through to the other side of the experience, which is a brilliant expression of the truth about pain. Rego’s technique somehow doesn’t overdramatise or abstract their suffering, doesn’t take their reality from them to transform them into martyrs or symbols, which allows us to appreciate the strength of these women who we have no doubt will fight through their adversity, to a different future. Not a necessarily better future, but a different one.

Rego: The Barn (acrylic paint on canvas, 1994)

However, the best thing about Rego’s paintings is her feet. In a way, these feet sum up everything you may need to know about Paula Rego’s work. They act as a visual shorthand for all the struggles she depicts. The women, from particularly the 1990’s paintings, are often undeniably animalistic, with bare feet on all fours or on their haunches, on the floor rather than a bed, grounded to the earth. They are the feet of a person worked hard, used hard. Their feet describe their suffering: straining tendons, muscle, bone, blistered and calloused, the soles hard and rough, the skin slick and smooth, twisted and contorted in pain or ecstasy, labour or struggle.

The feet are often in the foreground of the composition, or of equal distance and therefore size as the head, emphasising the figures’ physicality and the body’s immediate primacy over intellect, imagination or inner life. The figures are undergoing experiences like sexual pleasure, or a hysterical episode/panic attack, or aborting a foetus, which are so powerful that one’s identity is swallowed by physical sensations. When the feet are not bare, they are stuffed into tight uncomfortable shoes with the ankles contorted by the high heels. Rego’s quick, skilful strokes of pastel masterfully capture the different textures of such anatomically interesting body parts as the feet. You can’t help but believe that women with such powerful feet could never succumb to pain or be beaten by abuse; they will prevail. The survival instinct and undeniable inner strength of these characters – the qualities that make looking at their suffering bearable – are contained in these feet.

Rego: Scarecrow and the Pig (pastel on board, 2005)

However, as the reader will notice, none of the photos I took while at the exhibition feature these fantastic feet. My favourites at the time were the more surreal, theatrical or collage-based compositions; lighter, more ethereal works than the abortion/possession subjects which ranged from the 1990’s to the 2010’s. But if you were lucky enough to treat yourself to a catalogue (as I did), you will see that a large chunk of the latter half of the exhibition features these primal, straining, muscular feet. They are unmissable.

It just goes to show how in the following days, weeks or months after an experience it can be something completely unexpected that takes hold in the memory, dominating the lighter initial impressions. And that’s why after the fact, all that came to my mind when recollecting Paula Rego’s retrospective were her feet.

Note, June 2022: Paula Rego sadly died recently and that slightly colours my view of the retrospective. I am glad I saw it while she was still alive, and vital. There’s such a strong pulse of muscle and movement in her bodies that it is hard to accept the finality of her passing.

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