A mother cradles her child accompanied by a quartet of handmaidens. In the background, a trustworthy gardener gazes into a cloudless blue sky while a girl-child dances on a verdant hill. Idyllic? Hardly. For the artist is Paula Rego, the Portuguese-born painter who has made a career out of conjuring the darkness that lurks at the heart of every fairytale. Forget fairy godmothers and sleeping princesses; Rego’s fascination is for the mad woman in the attic, the wolf within grandma’s bonnet, the nightmare at the edge of the dream.
Thus the face of that Madonna is a travesty of wrinkled flesh and wispy hair; sticky yellow quiffs sprout from the skull of one Medusa-like companion; from beneath the skirts of another peeps a cloven hoof.
Entitled “Dame with the Goat’s Foot (II) (Singing on the Hill-top)” (2012), the painting is one of a six-strong series of pastels that is Rego’s newest work. Inspired by a 19th-century story by Portuguese writer Alexandre Herculano, they were originally shown alongside works by Adriana Molder at Casa das Historias Paula Rego, the museum devoted to Rego’s oeuvre in Cascais in Portugal.
Thanks to a cogent essay – originally written for the Cascais show – visitors to the Marlborough gallery will have no trouble unravelling the plot behind Rego’s fantasies. But view the exhibition before reading the text or the paintings risk being downgraded to illustrations; and they are far more than that.
In Herculano’s tale, the goat-footed female is the Devil in disguise on a mission to seduce and destroy the man who will become her husband. Yet in Rego’s world there are neither heroines nor villains. Rather, all are snared in the wild, Bacchic tragedy that is her take on bourgeois family life.
One of many pleasures here is Rego’s recasting of Dionysian decadence. Herculano’s grotesque anti-heroine is the heir to a strand of classical Greek mythology whereby goats were associated with divinities such as the goat-god Pan, and Bacchus who chose them as ritual sacrifices. (Tragedy translates in ancient Greek as “goat-song”.) Renaissance artists, most famously Titian, honoured the wine-god’s orgies with a pan-Hellenic beauty at odds with the debauchery. The surreal, modernist whimsy with which Rego confronts her saga of killing, coupling, drinking and music-making is far more appropriate.
The pastels Rego has favoured for two decades lend her a flexibility denied by oil. As a result, she can conjure pulsating, tumultuous orgies of spidery lines and solid volumes, wan blushes of colour, patches of lapidary radiance and areas of naked whiteness. Stately Mediterranean matrons in mutton-chop sleeves exude the gaunt sturdiness of early Lucian Freud; rag-doll children and hybrid monsters possess a scratchy, unfinished sogginess that recalls works on paper by Max Beckmann and Otto Dix.
It is the ghosts of Iberian titans that loom most powerfully. The turbulent cascades of boneless, terrified figures in three vertical paintings – “Levitation”, “The Quest” and “Cast of Characters” – recall El Greco’s vertiginous mystic symphonies. The ravaged faces and monstrous malformations inevitably evoke Goya. Rego herself has cited Portuguese folklore as one of her key influences; but her exuberant anti-classicism also makes her heir to a tradition that stretches back to the Flemish-inspired masters of the Spanish Renaissance.
Although much is cruel and depraved, mischief and tenderness leaven the malevolence. A redemptive dove sails over the husband as he gnaws on a bone in a gruesome travesty of the minstrel he once was; a little girl clutches a cross oblivious to the Rabelasian carnality around her.
No one could doubt Rego’s feminism; she has made paintings denouncing female circumcision, sex trafficking and illegal abortion. Yet she is far too serious an artist to allow ideology to cramp her imagination. Her women run the gamut from virago to victim. Based on the Lorca-noble lineaments of her longtime model Lila Nunes, the recurring female face here expresses a stony, suffering strength. Modelled on Rego’s late, beloved husband Victor Willing, the doomed male protagonist – a craggy, soulful-eyed chap in shirt and waistcoat – is blessed with the dignity of an honest working man.
Rego’s proficiency for print-making is evidenced in a cycle of etchings with aquatint entitled “Goat Girl”. Among the finest images on show, they orchestrate the same scene in different colours. Although its exact meaning is elusive, the encounter between a petticoat-clad female, her balding, androgynous minder and a cartoonish suitor with duck’s face and rabbit’s bobtail suggests all manner of sinister sexual exchanges. According to the hue – one etching shows the girl in mint-green slip for example, the next in one coloured the red of fresh blood – the mood oscillates from droll caricature to danger and tragedy.
Sadly, a shortage of funds has put Rego’s rapport with the Cascais museum under strain. Among eight paintings here that are not part of the Herculano cycle is “Avarice”, which shows Rego slumped over a table flanked by a blindfolded executioner and a smug-looking gentleman who is a portrait of Cascais’ mayor.
Her predilection for pastel over oil has caused Rego to declare that she fears she is not a proper painter. Proof if it were needed is supplied by Marlborough’s decision to open the show with one of the tableaus of maquettes that she constructs in the studio as a model for each painting. Disturbing though they are, these life-size, plaster ghouls remain tethered to the realm of the real in all its robust, three-dimensional banality. Their presence serves as an illuminating contrast to the paintings that lie beyond. For it is these confused, imperfect, contradictory translations of mind into matter – of psychic torment into pigment – that are our portal into Rego’s imaginary. And into dark, uncharted depths within our own.
Until March 1, www.marlboroughfineart.com