The image tells real story

Paula Rego

May 28, 2004

What Paula Rego does so well is first paint and then talk about her work.

During the late 1980s I visited her studio in Clerkenwell with art critic John McEwen and we talked to her about a painting with a young girl holding a barber's razor to the neck of a big hairy dog. "Is she shaving the dog?"

I asked. "Possibly, but she may also be thinking about cutting his throat," Paula replied.

My follow-up question had something to do with my surprise at seeing her working on the floor; what she said in response was along the lines of "that's where children like to draw, it's a more intimate way of working than standing at an easel".

You can tell an artist has arrived when books start to be published that survey their margins: The Drawings of..., The Stage Designs of... If this is true, then Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic Work serves not just as a catalogue of her prints but a benchmark of her success.

Rego's prints are lovingly made, physically attractive and usually totally accessible. But because prints are seldom the centre of an artist's concern I suspect they should be treated with more critical caution than a painting. That said, Rego is one of the most important European artists of her generation. She became visible as a major player in the late 1980s when she graduated from the small but cool Edward Totah Gallery to the Marlborough Gallery, the art world's equivalent of the Bank of England. It was just before this move she started to paint pictures that were spookily old-fashioned and no longer so obviously a part of a "modern art".

What is good about this book are the illustrations and the fact that it is, in my childhood memory sense of the words, a real "picture book". What is not so good is the way the text physically and intellectually interfaces with the pictures. Every reader will immediately notice that most of the images do not tie up with the text, so if you want to read the book rather than use it for reference, you end up with 400 or so images each in search of a text.

Apart from this design fault, it strikes me that the text struggles throughout the book to elevate Rego's images above the level of their title and subject matter and seems to achieve this only when Rego herself speaks.

Then the words come to life and the text begins to match the argument of the images.

The history of art demonstrates that children's stories and nursery rhymes have never had much currency as subject matter for serious artists, but Rego seems to get away with it, and in the end possibly makes a virtue of her passion for illustration.

T. G. Rosenthal, on the other hand, seems to fall into a scholarly trap set by the Opies and ends up wrestling with historical sources and symbolism rather than grabbing hold of what must really be the issue: explaining the relevance of these strangely archaic images to early 21st-century visual culture.

The most potent and provocative chapter is refreshingly devoid of charm and popular appeal: with a powerful sense of pity and tragedy, it takes abortion as its theme. In this chapter, both image and word take on a pace that no other part of the book achieves. A pace and energy one sees in Goya, in the radical Mexican printmaker Posada, and in the work of the English satirists Rowlandson, Newton and Gilray. What unites each of these artists is a moral and politically motivated desire to reach a bigger audience.

To my mind, the abortion series and accompanying text allow Rego to join this august group and avoid simply extending her sales in the direction of less-affluent collectors.

Stephen Farthing is an artist and a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, currently resident in Manhattan.

Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic Work

Author - T. G. Rosenthal
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 288
Price - £60.00
ISBN - 0 500 09315 6

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