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Paula Rego: A Retrospective

Hard Skin

By Linda Brogan


5.30pm. I am in Paula Rego’s exhibition at the Tate Britain, alone. I was in earlier. 2pm. I was fucking furious – as usual. When I am in a building full of artgoers, I hate them. I feel like slapping them. I feel infuriated. I hate the prices: £5.50 for watery soup and bread. The woman opposite me says, ‘I like your coat. I like denim.’ I thank her graciously. She is not one of them. She isn’t a posh cunt. She’s not a poor cunt though either. She is definitely not a posh cunt. I feel a bit more secure now. She wasn’t hostile. Oh, they have all been hostile. They don’t mean to be. They are so fucking aggressive in their what-are-you-doing-here? In their only-we-are-entitled-to-this. This gallery is for us. Is it? Is it really?

I always have this conversation with myself. The African lady on the door is on their side. She also gives me the what-are-you-doing-here? welcome. I am the only non-white person in the gallery. They all have their soup. Spread out at all the tables. £4.50 cakes. £7.50 sandwiches. The guy on the till descends from the Far East. So does the woman behind the hatch where I get my soup.

And then it happens. I go for a knife, to butter my requisite sourdough bread. I absolutely hate tooth-pulling sourdough bread. I’d much prefer a slice of chunky soft white. I reach for the knife and a real posh cunt interrupts me. ‘Where is the members’ room?’ Of course, the cunt is old. Probably 20 minutes to live. With this air – you know the air – this fucking air. The only reason I could possibly be reaching for a knife is to put one in that is clean, or get one out for a customer.

‘I’ve no fucking idea.’ She takes no offence. She’s so fucking posh she does not need to take offence about anything. Her beads are probably 50 years old. Bought by her husband when she had the twins she put in boarding school about 20 minutes later. I go back to my soup. ‘I have 10 minutes to eat this,’ I say to stabilise myself. The woman, who isn’t quite posh, smiles. I am grateful for it.

I first met Paulo Rego seeing Snow White and her Stepmother. Startling. How ugly Snow White is. Masculine. How spiky the stepmother is, holding Snow White’s knickers. Why her knickers? Like when I was a kid, I spent quite a bit of time that day trying to work out what it meant. After that I could tell a Paula Rego anytime, anywhere. I love witnessing an artist entering their style: Picasso becoming Picasso; Miro becoming Miro; Pollock becoming Pollock; Giacometti becoming Giacometti. I am always enthralled by the amount of shit they produce on the way. Like I have.  Imitate.  Follow trend. Think they have made something new. Until they make something new. Truly become themselves. It is comforting. I love to date their breakthroughs in their retrospectives. How old were they when they did that drawing? He/she was only 25. Then 40. Paula is the first time I have ever noticed 60. I am 60 now. A woman of her time – born 1935 – there are so many things she can’t say, can’t do, can’t be.

I can feel these coming off her paintings. Hostility. Fury. She is furious. Fucking furious. I begin to read the writing on the wall. Not one mention of her fury. The Tate whitewashes her. I hear the other viewers repeat the writing on the wall. How can you be so stupid as to follow the nice stuff the staff are writing about their idol? It is fucking obvious this woman, Paula Rego, is fucking infuriated. Born 40 years before a woman can access her own mortgage in England. Born in fascist-occupied, dictator-oppressed Portugal. Her fury grabs me. Makes her dangerous. How dare she make Snow White ugly? How dare she? However, Snow White ain’t on exhibition here.

There are all these paintings where she is trying to find Paula Rego. I study the dates. Yes, she is 25. How old when she has her baby? Aha. How old when her husband Victor is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis? 1966. She is a thirty-year-old woman with children and a husband who needs care. From what I can make out, she loved him. She is fucking furious. Then it hits me around the corner – The Dance. Huge. A showstopper. Arrests me like Caravaggio did. Victor is painted in twice. Once with a dark-haired woman, I am presuming this is her – then a blonde woman. Did Victor have an affair? I look it up. ‘At the Slade, Rego began an affair with fellow student Victor Willing, who was already married to another artist Hazel Whittington. Rego had many abortions during their affair starting from when she was 18 years old, because Willing had threatened to return to his wife if Rego kept their child.’ Fuck. She’s just tripled in fury to me.

I don’t like the fairy tale interpretations in the next room. I’ve done that. You get lost and you don’t know what you are doing. So you tread water. You hope no one will notice. Then something happens and you begin to swim again. In the next room is Target. Paula’s collaborator, Lila Nunes kneels, holding the neck of her dress open, her back to us. Self-explanatory. So is Angel, the woman with the sword, and Dog Woman, insane, baying. Bride is not young, not pretty. 1994. Paula Rego is 58. She knows she’s been had. Iconic moments in a woman’s life – her life, my life, our lives, boiled down to the furious. I like them. But I’m still not stupidly impressed. They are a bit on the nose.

In the next room, now, I like the metaphor. A series of large pastels titled Possession 1—V1. Seven pictures. Lila poses on a tan couch previously owned by Paula’s therapist. Paula was in therapy for 40 years. Lila is looking at us. Not looking at us. Insolent. Churlish. Defeated. Despondent. Striking. Her and Lila are channelling their most defeated self, their most defiant self, their most realistic self, their ‘teenage’ self. I take these in a few times. Wow. She has captured someone’s inner world. I can feel someone’s inner world. I can remember feeling like that. Fuck.

In the next room I get my answer. A triptych, The Pillowman. Painted 2004. Paula is 68. Sad. The wall says that the Pillowman probably represents her beloved dad. The chair is possibly his armchair. Where he sat depressed. In the first, she is carrying a stepladder that is a crucifix. What does that mean? Is she being crucified? Is her dad being crucified? In the middle picture is the beach, the Tate says refers to Portugal. I’ll have that. ‘Pillowman’ is lying there inert. Useless. Benign. A blonde girl is hugging to his body. Is this Paula? She’s receiving nothing in return. A grown woman is sat at his head holding a baby. Is this her mother? Is that Paula as a baby? But the most moving is the third picture. This girl is definitely Paula. It is that ugly Snow White. The Pillowman, her dad, has his head in her lap. She is the martyr. Crucified by the oppression of his neediness. It was shocking, too, for me to realise my dad was such a forgery. It is there, why she was so hungry for love. So furious when it didn’t work out – when ill health not mental health robbed her this time.

I leave, have a cig, look at Turner, the biggest collection in the world, have a think: not impressed with Rego’s final room, and her cultural appropriation of female genital mutilation and rape in war. What could she know about that? Astounded that she doesn’t know her quest ends with that triptych. That is the end of her search. Apart from one Turner with a tiny perfect little hard white moon, plenty are so empty so flat; he hasn’t become his impressionistic self yet, the one I love. In the main shop I ask about the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, Infinity Mirrored Rooms. The shop’s young West Indian descendant, like me, doesn’t think there are any tickets. But she checks the river shuttle times anyway while waiting for the Tate Modern to answer. She makes me feel equal, worthy of attention. I thank her at least ten times. Even though, yes, there are no tickets.

I go back. 5.30pm. I am in Paula Rego’s exhibition at the Tate Britain, alone. Alone. This whole room, this whole exhibition, is for me alone. A student enters. She gets close to Target – Lila Nunes kneeling, her dress open, her back to us.

What is the student staring at? What can she see? I step forward. Up close I can see the line is no more than white pastel. I step back. It is hard skin. I step in again. Yes, it is a white line of pastel. I step back. From this distance, the viewers, the white pastel is hard skin on the sole of collaborator Lila’s foot. Divine. In my first round, in relation to me, and my art, I studied Paula’s great feats, her mediocre feats, her trajectory, in chronological order, as she chases her style. Because of this young student’s curiosity I have just seen Paula’s skill.

6.00pm. The African visitor team enter. ‘Make your way down the stairs.’ There is no deferential tone now. They just want the lot of us out. I leave feeling heartened. ‘It was good, wasn’t it?’ I smile to a couple I wouldn’t have approached on my way in. They smile back, ‘Yeah, very good.’