Paula Rego is nearly 80 but she hasn’t mellowed. Her paintings still balance fierceness with compassion, and she may never have painted a scene in which a viewer would want to feel at home. If you think pastels mean baby shades you need to see ‘The Last King of Portugal’ and ‘The Relic’, two cheerfully discordant series – one based on history, the other on fiction – in colours ranging from bloody magenta to flood-water green to eye-ache blue. They’re magnificent and frightening, rocking on the borders of comprehension like a trauma survivor. The third series in this exhibition, watercolour illustrations of the fairy tale ‘Stone Soup’, have a delightful simplicity. But it’s a low bar for joy.
Manuel II, last King of Portugal, saw his father and brother murdered, reigned briefly and died in 1932 after nearly 20 years of exile in London. Rego’s own time in Britain is voluntary and comfortable – she first came here as a student in the 1950s and has split her time between Britain and her native Portugal ever since. She is also a Dame, and perhaps she sees in Manuel’s story a dark, myth-tainted reflection of her own experience.
Certainly the saddened eyes of the young king, rowing away from the town of Ericeira, are lent extra poignancy by the knowledge that Rego and her husband, Victor Willing, spent several years there, and that Willing entered that other kind of exile when he succumbed to MS in 1988. Still, personal histories are hardly necessary when confronting these frantically weird paintings. Rego brightens our darkest mental corners with crimson, gold and glittering wit. We need her.