The Tate Britain exhibition of the renowned British-Portuguese artist is far from her first solo show, but it is the biggest of her 60-year career. A good retrospective should take you on a sort of ‘This is Your Life’ journey through an artist’s work, and that’s exactly what you have here, a huge show of more than 100 pieces, grouped into very different Rego epochs.
There's ‘Julieta’, for example; a carnival of a collage, so animated with cartoonish pinks and purples, it feels like a scrambled still from a Disney film. Get closer, and disembodied figures begin to appear: a ghost? A child? A dancing chimera? Maybe. At first, it feels like a joyful occasion, one composed from memory; could it be a local Portuguese festa? No such luck. ‘Julieta’ is about a technician who was electrocuted while working on an electricity pylon. His wife witnessed the death.
It’s not her most recognisable painting, but it’s typical of Rego, an artist who deals in brutal storytelling, using fairytales, nursery rhymes and folklore to carry each message through. Every image is an opera, and every story she tells is a drama.
An only child, Rego was born into Portugal’s dictatorship under António de Oliveira Salazar and was sent to finishing school in England by her anti-fascist family, who wanted her to grow up in a more liberal country. It’s how she ended up in the Slade School, where at just 19 she won the Summer Composition prize for ‘Under Milk Wood’, which transports Dylan Thomas’s fake Welsh village of Llareggub to a colourful Portuguese kitchen. Rego still cites winning that prize as her proudest moment. It certainly gave her confidence: just a few years on from the Slade she was experimenting in abstraction with ‘Salazar Vomiting the Homeland’, a laceration of Salazar's regime that it is so filthy, gallerist Victor Musgrave refused to show it.
Rego’s best work came later, much later, in the late 1980s and 1990s, when she became preoccupied with painting transgressive and conspiratorial women and girls. In ‘The Maids’, they plot to kill their employers, in ‘The Family’, children hastily dress their father, blending affection with a need to get him out of the room so they can get up to no good.
The Tate has missed a trick with the '90s-era Rego by not making more of the artist’s phantasmagorical Camden studio, which is famously inhabited by dolls and puppets (an excellent bit of video footage shows the artist drawing for an audience of stuffed animals). It would have added that extra dose of menace to see them hanging out in the gallery space. Not to say the exhibit is short on menace, ‘The Little Murderess’ and ‘Dog Woman’ have that covered.
When not barking or plotting someone’s demise, the women of Rego’s paintings spend a whole lot of time lying down, crumpled in pain or boredom (or both), but she paints their strength along with the anguish. This is particularly true for her ‘Untitled’ paintings, better known as her ‘abortion’ series, which depict the aftermath of illegal terminations – women squatting over chamber pots, twisting their bodies to try and find some reflief. What Rego captures so well is the feeling, specifically the feeling of cramps, those screeching, vibrating cramps that tear through the body like a volcanic eruption. Rego recently told The Guardian that when the series first went on show: ‘Many critics talked about the colours rather than the subject matter, but the women knew what they were about.’ In 1998, Portugal held a referendum to legalize abortion which failed to pass due to low voter turn out. The ‘abortion’ series was printed in newspapers as part of a campaign for a second referendum in 2007. That one passed (though the law remains restrictive). Rego has no interest in painting still lifes, or self portraits. She’s only interested in telling a story, and will use anything from Little Miss Muffet to oversized puppets to help her tell it. But when she deals in reality, that’s when it becomes impossible to look away.