Ever since I came across Kentish Town artist Paula Rego’s painting ‘The Family’ I’ve been overwhelmingly drawn to her women. They’re physically strong and stocky with muscular calves and bulging knees and wrists, as evocative as Degas’ ballerinas. They’re doll-like, with all-knowing eyes and rounded faces, foreshortened bodies, hair tied back in buns. Again and again I return to study Crivelli’s Garden (The Visitation), Dog Woman, The Policeman’s daughter, the artist’s Abortion pastels and her incredible portrait of Germaine Greer from 1995.
77 year old Paula Rego is Portuguese by ancestry but has lived in Britain for 50 years. Her work is certainly still influenced and informed by Portuguese and Spanish folklore, and she is regarded as one of the greatest figurative artists of her generation. She has also long had a studio in Kentish Town.
Her new exhibition is titled The Dame with the Goat’s Foot and Other Stories. Its centrepiece is a series of six large pastels of Paula’s interpreting Alexandre Herculano’s 19th Century Portuguese folk story ‘A Dama Pe-de-Cabra, romance de um jogral’ (The Goat-Footed Lady, romance of a minstrel). The pastels themselves are colourful and vibrant, macabre visions, depicting disturbing menacing scenes. The story goes like this: the Goat-Feet Lady is the devil in female form, her goat feet betraying her devilishness, and she lives in a dark grotto of the unconscious, only coming to light in dreams. Portuguese folk tales are some of the most frightening and evil of all, and the artist apparently “likes to paint things that frighten her.”
She describes her work as ‘Beautiful Grotesque’ and there is indeed a sense of magic realism to it. Wonderful, raw and feminine, it revels in ambiguous storytelling, drawing on the darkness of childhood stories and sinister fairy tales.
A display of mixed media sculptural maquettes entitled ‘The Playground’ greets you as you enter the gallery; figures made from papier mache and cloth, with macabre masks, the floor strewn with satchels of books and toys. These are the figures that Paula creates her pastels from, constructing a set of model figures or using regular models and friends to sit for her.
I saw a video of the inside of her studio once – an Aladdin’s treasure trove of fantastic sets and props, magical costumes, puppets and dolls. Oh how I long to immerse myself in her enchanting world.
Words & Pics: Nikki Verdon
Next week: Nikki checks out the Valentino exhibition at Somerset House.