Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance

Attribution/author:Article by: David Pollock

Ambitious retrospective of the Portuguese artist's work

The sense of feminist anger which rips through this lifetime-spanning selection of works (the first seen in Scotland, with a show which originated at Milton Keynes' MK Gallery) by the London-based Portuguese artist Paula Rego is palpable, even if these motifs might only become clear when the works are taken as a whole. In the Dog Women series from the 1990s, painted images of women in unusual poses – lying on the floor asleep atop a man's suit jacket; hunched on all fours to escape stoning; pregnant and somehow constrained within an armchair – occupy an uncanny space between the celebratory and the unpleasant.

These works both recognise the primal nature of womanhood, yet somehow reduce their subjects to something less than human, as though the 84-year-old Rego might be suggesting that's also society's positioning of them. In her series of etchings on Female Genital Mutilation from 2009, meanwhile, the weirdly maternal figure of each 'cutter' looms amid the monochrome of Victorian fairytale illustrations, bringing a sinister element to these images populated by women; while in the Abortion series of paintings and etchings, women are shown in defiance before and after the act of undergoing an illegal procedure.

Each of these latter works is a stark and uncompromising response to the failure of Portugal's 1998 referendum on abortion to result in legalisation, and the externally political is never far from Rego's work. The disturbing 'War' (2003), for example, features anthropomorphic beings, one childlike, bloodied and being carried by a mother, in a hallucinatory response to the carnage of the second Iraq War; while the early works shown from the 1960s are less figurative than her later pieces, more abstract and Pop Art-influenced – entirely understandably – in their response to Portugal's then-prevalent Salazar dictatorship, and particularly her liberal father's stifled outrage at it.

Many of the works shown are visceral and confrontational, for example the early abstraction 'Salazar Vomiting the Homeland' (1960) and the cartoonish 'Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove' and 'Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey's Tail' (both 1981), both freighted references to her male relationships, including that of her husband, the painter Victor Willing. Some pieces bear the quality of a fairytale illustration, others a stark realism, including 'Joseph's Dream', in which the usual image of manly, in-control artist and vulnerable female sitter is reversed, yet all cumulatively add up to a powerful response to the last half-century from a fiercely feminist perspective.

Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 2, Edinburgh, until Sun 19 Apr.

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