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Paula Rego, Tate Modern

This was a remarkable and totally engaging exhibition and despite the London crowds, there was space to get lost in the chronology of Paula Rego’s lifelong catalogue of work. Rego is one of the most influential contemporary figurative painters and she has always had a canny ability to compress a huge cacophony of storytelling into her work.

The exhibition showed how she has moved from drawing to pastel and then oils for her work. Even in her early work, we can see her passion for folk themes from her native Portugal, and this simply explodes in her later painting, for example, The Dance which is shown last below.

It’s quite eerie that her figures all seem to bear a resemblance in the face as if they are from the same family. I found myself wondering if we were seeing the same character in different guises or at different slices of time. The Dance is a particularly unnerving painting as for one thing it’s huge and then we see how the characters are glancing out at us. Their faces are expressionless and deep in thought – the tension that Rego has embedded in this piece is pure genius and commands attention for a long time.

Rego created the abortion series after the failed referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal. This series graphically illustrates the dangers of making abortion illegal and had a powerful impact on swaying public opinion to form a second referendum in 2007. It’s incredible how some pastel drawings can change public opinion more than facts, words and statistics. The power of art is reinforced indeed.

I tried to do full frontal but I didn’t want to show blood, gore or anything to sicken, because people wouldn’t look at it then. And what you want to do is make people look, make pretty colours and make it agreeable, and in that way make people look at life.

Paula Rego

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