A Giant Spider And A Rabbit-Headed Family: Fantastical Meets Brutal In Paula Rego At Tate Britain

Paula Rego, Tate Britain ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 13 months ago

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A Giant Spider And A Rabbit-Headed Family: Fantastical Meets Brutal In Paula Rego At Tate Britain Paula Rego, Tate Britain 4
Disney references, such as Snow White, often make an appearance in Rego's work. © Tate (Oliver Cowling)

A woman holds her head in her hands as her limbs fold in on herself. Standing behind her are the lower halves of two men, physically dwarfing her.

This small work, Interrogation, floors me with its intensity and vulnerability. All the more so when I realise it was painted by Paula Rego when she was 15 years old, in reference to the brutal military dictatorship she lived under at the time.

Intensity and vulnerability are repeated themes in the 60-year span of Rego's career, on display at Tate Britain.

The Portuguese born, London based artist co-opts nursery rhymes into a series of prints, but there's no PG-rating here; a monstrous spider, about to launch itself at Little Miss Muffet, is the stuff of an arachnophobe's nightmare, not a children's book.

Women are always at the centre of Rego's narratives. © Tate (Oliver Cowling)

Drawing inspiration from Disney and fairytales, Rego often uses animals in place of humans, yet there's always a human narrative behind these stories. In one, a wife cuts off a monkey's tail in a thinly-veiled scene of infidelity revenge.

Likewise, a rabbit-headed woman fleeing with her children is based on an actual photo of a bombing raid in Iraq. The terror in the painting is palpable.

Girls and women take centre stage throughout — an avenging angel stands boldly with sword in hand; a pregnant, vulnerable and abandoned woman represents the devastating consequences of the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil.

The artist herself appears twice in this work, both on the left and on the right, dancing with her husband. Tate © Paula Rego

Rego's most impactful series was painted off the back of the defeat of a referendum in Portugal that would have legalised abortion. In response she painted a series of women in the aftermath of the trauma of an illegal abortion. A teenager lying on the floor with a hollow stare, clutching a pillow, is art at its most heartbreaking.

Scattered in among the fantastical and the brutal are some earlier works, in which Rego experiments with collage, abstract art and surrealism — highlighting her great versatility.

I came into this show a Paula Rego fan and now, given more context to her career, only appreciate her more.

Paula Rego at Tate Britain is on from 7 July to 24 October. Tickets are £18 for adults.

Last Updated 06 July 2021