LONDON — Paula Rego is the kind of artist who paints a soldier in a leopard-print gimp mask, a little girl shaving her pet dog and the devil’s wife in nipple tassels.
Despite Britain’s famously prudish nature, her mischievous scenes have made her a national treasure: In 2010, Queen Elizabeth II made Rego, 86, a Dame Commander, one of the country’s highest honors. And a major career retrospective at Tate Britain that opens on Wednesday is the third organized by the museum group, after a smaller display at Tate Britain in 2004 and a show at Tate Liverpool in 1997.
The retrospective is the biggest exhibition of her work to date in Britain, a country where the Portuguese-born artist has lived, on and off, since the 1950s. The show, which runs through Oct. 24, comes at a moment when the kind of figurative, narrative painting that Rego has made her own has never been more fashionable.
Rego conjures disturbing imagery — etchings of dark nursery rhymes like “Three Blind Mice,” and portraits of women howling like feral dogs — but it’s her exuberant, otherworldly early work, rather than the gritty naturalism of her recent pastels, that lingers powerfully in the mind.
Born in Lisbon in 1935, Rego was the only child of liberal parents who opposed the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator. When she was 16, her parents sent her to a finishing school in Kent, in southern England, and in the early 1950s, she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
Portuguese society was claustrophobic for women (who didn’t gain the right to vote until 1976), and Rego’s early works railed against the repressive atmosphere. At Tate Britain, there’s “Interrogation” (1950), featuring two sets of foreboding legs behind a woman contorted over a chair; “Under Milk Wood” (1954), a stiff painting relocating the drama of Dylan Thomas’s play from Wales to a Portuguese kitchen; and the angry, chewed-up “Salazar Vomiting the Homeland,” (1960), with waxy yellow forms suspended over a navy background, which demands some time before you can locate the title’s promised action.
Collage offered a way out of this brittle kind of image making. From 1960, Rego began cutting up newspapers and magazines, as well as her own drawings, and layering the pieces onto canvas. Walking into the second room at Tate Britain, the force of “Julieta” (1964) and “Manifesto (For a Lost Cause)” (1965) is striking — a maelstrom of heads and hooves and placards and wings, accented against planes of Pop color. Both were included in her first solo exhibition, at the Modern Art Gallery of the National Society of Fine Arts in Lisbon in 1965, a show that shocked many of her contemporaries.
In an interview she gave to a friend, the poet Alberto de Lacerda, shortly after that show’s opening, Rego said that she had wanted the tangled forms in those hybrid canvases to escape the history of painting as “high art.” Crouching over her work on the floor (she said she found it “intimidating to have the thing up on the wall looking back at me”), she told Lacerda how she drew inspiration from “caricature, newspaper reports, street events, proverbs, children’s songs, folk dances, nightmares, desires, and fears.” And so she found her artistic voice: the wisdom of the spoken, the sung, the whispered; of rumor and folklore; of idioms passed down through generations.
Animals and pubescent girls became crucial players in Rego’s imaginative realm, and an interest in the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung led her to return to formative experiences that might be playing out in her adult relationships: In the “Red Monkey” series, she paints characters from a toy theater that belonged to her husband, Victor Willing, to dramatize an extramarital affair. The crudely painted animal avatars tower in each picture, and it is hard not to recoil from the violence of a scene like “Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey’s Tail” (1981), featuring yet more vomit.
The exhibition peaks with a central room of Rego paintings from the late 1980s, made when she was caring for Willing in the last years of his life. These are suffocating scenes, lit with the raking sunlight of a Giorgio de Chirico painting and infused with the fetishistic menace of a David Lynch film. Look at the determined stare of the daughter in “The Family” (1988), straddled between her father’s legs as she helps to dress him; or the clenched jaw of “The Policeman’s Daughter” (1987) as she polishes her father’s knee-high boot.
Then, in 1994, Rego began using pastel, and the tone of her work changed drastically. Among the most acclaimed works in this medium are a monumental series of abortion pictures, which she made after the narrow defeat of a 1998 referendum on changing Portugal’s anti-abortion laws. In works such as “Untitled No. 4” (1998-9), girls — some still in their school uniform — curl in fetal positions after illegal terminations.
Live as this subject matter may still be, the large-scale pastel works don’t have the same effect as her more fantastical painted scenes. All the strength and brilliance of acrylic paint fades into a material with the drab associations of amateur portraits, or the prurient gaze of Edgar Degas.
When Rego depicts an assistant enacting 19th-century photographs of hysterical women, it is interesting conceptually, but feels muted and reminiscent of other London School painters, most notably Lucian Freud, who taught at the Slade when Rego was a student there.
Give me the oil-on-canvas “Cast of Characters From Snow White” (1996) over one of these sullen, lone pastel women any day: the princess’s unnervingly adult face and trademark stocky calves, as she teases at the hem of her skirt and cavorts amid fairy-tale companions.
This is painting with the subversive edge of a contemporary fable, fresh from the imaginative depths of a wicked national treasure.
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