Obedience and Defiance at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Writing: Alice Gilham
Paula Rego, first and foremost, is a storyteller. Her six-room spectacle at Modern Two weaves a narrative of disobedience, violence and fear, in the light of personal experiences over her fifty-year artistic career, dating from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century. Throughout the decades of work shown in her Obedience and Defiance exhibition, Rego responds to subjects immediately surrounding her; from political circumstance, such as laws made against abortion and female genital mutilation, to the illness and eventual death of her husband. Rego simultaneously ‘obeys’ and ‘defies’ the situations which afflicted her through a masterful chronicle of emotive responses, which provoke a similar intensity within its viewers.
Room one features Rego’s early Pop-influenced pieces, notable for their abstracted figuration and likeness to collage. Distorted and repulsive, Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960) depicts António de Oliveira Salazar, Prime Minister of Portugal between 1932 and 1968, vomiting amidst a riotous blue, red and yellow scene. Here Rego is making an overt political statement in her painting, as she regurgitates her distaste for the dictator’s oppressive regime and goes on to suggest that ‘really it should be the homeland that is vomiting Salazar,’ thus expressing a national consensus of rejection. Rego’s political disobedience is smattered across the walls of room one; despite this she fully understood the danger of her provocations, and subsequently altered the titles to some of her works accordingly. Rego defies the dictatorship through her art, yet obeys its customs just enough to evade punishment. A dialogue of fear permeates these pieces; the early artworks narrate the genuine horrors of Portugeuse politics in the 1960s, yet similarly show Rego’s anticipation of the consequences of her artistic resistance.
Swollen, sturdy and strong; such portrayals of the grounded female figure unfurl across rooms two and three in Rego’s effort to convey genuine female experience. Rego unmasks violence against women by adopting a motif of animals, as she famously says, ‘if you make them into animals you can do anything, can’t you?’ Across the following decades, Rego constructs several artistic sequences such as the ‘Red Monkey’ and ‘Dog Women’ series to provide a voice for women persistently unlistened to.
In room two, the earlier ‘Red Monkey’ works subvert the viewers’ expectations of gender; paintings such as Wife Cuts off Red Monkey’s Tail (1981) grotesquely illustrate the emasculation and cruelty enacted upon the male monkey figure by a female perpetrator. This particular painting recalls Salazar Vomiting the Homeland as the monkey throws up in agony and fear, therefore subtly augmenting a political message within Rego’s work. Although Wife Cuts off Red Monkey’s Tail is framed by marital intimacy (the monkey often represents Rego’s husband Victor Willing), a wider message of women wishing to untether themselves from male oppression is expressed. This expression of female power illuminates masculine fears: women being awakened to their autonomy and abandoning beliefs of male superiority would fatally injure the patriarchy. The cartoonish characterisations of the ‘Red Monkey’ series, not yet stylistically distinctive of Rego’s signature female figures, reveal the transition from Rego’s earlier Pop-inspired abstraction into figurative work.
Rego’s ‘Dog Women’ sought to engage with ideas of female servility, previously subverted in ‘Red Monkey’. The three works Love, Lush and Sleeper (1994) which dominate one wall, depict credible and convincing yet dejected women. The passivity of their contorted limbs is unnerving, and further heightened by Rego’s partial exclusion of shadow, exuding an ominous impression that the figures are floating in some sort of timeless, liminal space: neither wholly woman or dog, dead or alive, static or in motion. Rego unceremoniously depicts the subservience of female companionship in her ‘Dog Women’ series, and stirs fear within the powerless viewer by situating them as a mere bystander to such inhumanity. Rego successfully narrates the vulnerability of female domesticity in the bold statements of her animal series, while pertaining to the idea of ‘obedience’ and ‘defiance’. Through occupying an unknown space, Rego’s figures together obey and defy feminine expectations. The passivity of the ‘Dog Women’ align with contemporary ideas of domestic female servitude, yet their observed passivity reveals a state of inferiority and provokes anxiety within the viewer for the women’s encumbered position.
Room three continues this politicisation of female persecution. Rego passionately protested the result of Portugal’s unsuccessful 1998 referendum to legalise abortion, in her stark artistic representations of illegal backstreet operations. Rego intends that these scenes are feared and repulsive, yet without ‘blood, gore or anything to sicken, because people wouldn’t look at it then.’ Like her political works of the 1960s, Rego understands how to rebel while remaining within the system. These works ‘make people look’, and were therefore able to infiltrate a wider public circle and contribute to the successful second abortion referendum in 2007.
In Obedience and Defiance, running until the 19th April, Paula Rego narrates the unsung stories of female struggle and perseverance, her works illustrating the timeless feud between persecution and resistance in both gender and class politics. Visiting viewers will be indebted to the emotive intelligence in Rego’s pieces, encountering fear within the work as well as themselves.
Image: via Wikipedia