Paula Rego: The Dame with the Goat’s Foot, Marlborough Gallery, London

The dame with the goat’s foot is, among other things, Paula Rego herself – the great storyteller who combines grace with ugliness, grandeur with squalor, mystery with depictions of the banality of evil. Rego is 77, and although she has returned before to sources from her native Portugal, this new series of work represents a particular looking back to layers of Portuguese myth and history: six large pastels, smaller drawings and hand-coloured etchings take inspiration from a medieval fairy story, A Dama Pé-de-Cabra, recounted by 19th-century chronicler and folklorist Alexandre Herculano.

Herculano is darker than the brothers Grimm, and Rego is entering a new late phase which, far from exhibiting the simplification or abstraction seen in many works of old age, is dense, defiantly narrative, impassioned. The cast surrounding the doomed, cleft-footed princess includes the figures of Rego’s mental landscape – grotesque, tormented infants, dolls and puppets caught between malevolence and vulnerability, animals fierce yet pathetic as stuffed toys, as well as allegorical representations such as “Avarice” – but here these are manoeuvred into crowded groups which show her to be a master of increasingly complex composition. Games of scale – the huge deformed baby versus small, inept adults; the giant wolf curled up on a tea table – and incongruity (a shimmering Pierrot embracing a sculpted nude on a plinth; a dog climbing a theatre curtain while a family of shrieking mother, father collapsed in an armchair, children run amok, tip off the stage) all emphasise chaos, desperation, humiliation.

The other development here is colour – dominated by deep crimsons, emeralds and gold, Rego’s palette is more sumptuous than previously, and is set off by strong black outlines that make the deep hues glow. An accompanying display of sculptural maquettes, called “The Playground” reinforces the theatrical nature of Rego’s entire endeavour: magnificent, psychologically arresting, original.

From Friday to March 1,

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