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Paula Rego reinvents fairy tales with eerie scenes. As a new exhibition of her work opens in Paris, Kelly Grovier looks at how the Portuguese artist balances myth and mortality.
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Some great works of art you long to step inside. Paula Rego’s paintings and drawings aren’t among them. Hers are unsettling scenes where psychological trouble and emotional turmoil percolate to popping point.

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Fascinated by the stories that define cultures, the Portuguese-born artist reinvents fairy tales and myths, folklore and legends, by investing them with hints of private pain, half-remembered from childhood or dredged from the depths of nightmare. The longer you stare at a Rego work, the deeper you plunge into darkness – the further lost you find yourself in shadow and mystery.

Little Miss Muffet I, 1989: Rego intertwines references like fairy tales and Lewis Carroll with autobiographical elements (Credit: Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

Little Miss Muffet I, 1989: Rego intertwines references like fairy tales and Lewis Carroll with autobiographical elements (Credit: Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

Take, for instance, her teasing masterpiece from 1996, Geppetto Washing Pinocchio, among some 70 paintings and drawings assembled for a major new exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris: The Cruel Stories of Paula Rego. The title of the pastel-on-paper work may seem innocent enough in its disarming allusion to the famous 19th-Century children’s story of a wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a living boy. But there is little that is dreamy or wistful about the stark scene that Rego depicts.

Geppetto washing Pinocchio (1996) is a disturbing tableau of intensely personal elements (Credit: Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

Geppetto washing Pinocchio (1996) is a disturbing tableau of intensely personal elements (Credit: Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

A seated man wearing a rumpled carpenter’s apron stares at the prone body of a slender child who lies face-down, rigid as a coroner’s slab, across his knees. Is the child alive or merely an inert plank of carved wood? Gripping a blood-red rag, Pinocchio’s creator scrubs the child’s ambiguous skin with the cold concentration of a butcher polishing his knives.

Geppetto and his creation are forever suspended somewhere between myth and mortality, whimsical fantasy and whatever tortured truths hunker in the corners of Rego’s imagination

This raw ritualistic cleansing is carried out on a stage that could be yesterday, a millennium ago, or a hundred years from now. Behind the pair, nothing but eerie darkness. In front of them, only the deepening yawn of a single black bucket troubles the timeless space in which the two are intimately intertwined. Geppetto and his creation are forever suspended somewhere between myth and mortality, whimsical fantasy and whatever tortured truths hunker in the gloomy corners of Rego’s imagination, too scared to scare us.

Like all of Rego’s works, Geppetto Washing Pinocchio (1996) is an image whose murky meanings play out simultaneously on several intersecting planes – psychological, cultural, and spiritual. The pastel belongs to a succession of works from the 1990s inspired by Disney-animated adaptations of celebrated children’s folk stories. Having already inhabited the mystical Neverland of Peter Pan for a sequence of menacingly magical scenes in 1992 (also on display in the exhibition), Rego turned her attention in 1996 to the Italian writer Carlo Collodi’s invention of the living doll whose nose grows whenever he lies, as a quizzical premise for exploring further the hazy border between truth and fiction, art and life.

Flying Children is part of a 1992 series in which Rego created 25 etchings for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan (Credit: Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

Flying Children is part of a 1992 series in which Rego created 25 etchings for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan (Credit: Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

Since the 1960s and her association with the legendary faction of artists known as The London Group (which included Frank Auerbach and David Hockney), Rego has shown an openness to the power of the subconscious to dictate the terms of her image making. Early flirtations with Surrealism and a period spent experimenting with automatic drawing paved the way for a more mature fascination with those stories, both visual and literary, that have etched themselves deeply into the fabric of cultural imagination, from Jane Eyre to Lewis Carroll, Hogarth to Goya, and, more recently, Blake Morrison to Martin McDonagh.

Family portrait

Determined to reinvent the tale of Pinocchio, Rego found herself staging a complex tableau of intensely personal elements that invigorate her work from deep below its surface. The artist’s son-in-law, Ron Mueck (an Australian sculptor who was brought up in a family of doll makers) was enlisted by the artist to pose as Geppetto. Fittingly, the puppet that Mueck perches on his lap – an effigy of a skinny child in Y-fronts – is one that Mueck himself had recently created, inspiring Rego’s portrayal of the puppet.

Mueck posed as Geppetto for Rego, holding his 1996 sculpture, Pinocchio, shown here (Credit: Ron Mueck, courtesy the artist/collection of Amy and John Phelan and Anthony d’Offay)

Mueck posed as Geppetto for Rego, holding his 1996 sculpture, Pinocchio, shown here (Credit: Ron Mueck, courtesy the artist/collection of Amy and John Phelan and Anthony d’Offay)

On a visit in 1996 to Rego’s haunted-house of a studio, famously cluttered with dismembered mannequins, makeshift models, and homespun disguises, the legendary art dealer, Charles Saatchi, was so struck by the raw power of Mueck’s macabre statue of a boy with arms pulled awkwardly behind him (a work that is also on display in the Musée de l’Orangerie show), Saatchi offered then and there to represent him.

Within a year, Mueck’s own penchant for discomfiting displays would cause a stir in the art world when he installed on the floor of the Royal Academy for Saatchi’s notorious exhibition of Young British Artists, Sensation, a naked likeness of his own deceased father with whom he’d had a difficult relationship. Mueck’s morbid, half-scale, silicone-and-human-hair sculpture Dead Dad (1997), surreally presaged by the troubled vibe between father and son in Rego’s Pinocchio painting, remains, to this day, among the most arresting works of the age.

Geppetto Washing Pinocchio recalls countless cradlings in Western art of Christ’s crumpled body in the arms of an inconsolable Virgin Mary

The bizarre blending of family and myth also unsettles a companion work to Geppetto Washing Pinocchio. Created the same year, Blue Fairy Whispers to Pinocchio features the artist’s daughter (sister-in-law of Mueck), the actress Victoria Willing, in the role of The Fairy with Turquoise Hair. In Collodi’s tale, the Fairy is the maternal voice of moral conscience who reminds Pinocchio that he must behave ethically. It’s the Blue Fairy who shows pity on the remorseful marionette by summoning woodpeckers to chip Pinocchio’s over-extended nose back down to a less humiliating size. By inserting her own daughter and son-in-law into her restaging of the children’s legend, Rego blurs the boundaries between cultural lore and family portraiture and entangles herself in the process.

Rego stages mannequins, dolls and masks in her studio to create works like The Fisherman, triptych, 2005 (Credit: Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

Rego stages mannequins, dolls and masks in her studio to create works like The Fisherman, triptych, 2005 (Credit: Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

Nor do the complexities stop there. Intensifying our response to Rego’s Geppetto Washing Pinocchio is the work’s subliminal echoes of similarly composed paintings from the history of art. Rego is an astute student of pictures and the pyramidal structure of her unnerving vignette – an adult holding a lifeless child – recalls countless cradlings in Western art of Christ’s crumpled body in the arms of an inconsolable Virgin Mary. By substituting a naughty puppet for the crumpled physique of the crucified saviour, Rego lampoons the piety of pietàs, adding another layer still of artistic audacity to her work.

“My favourite themes,” Rego confesses, “are power games and hierarchies. I always want to turn things on their heads, to upset the established order, to change heroines and idiots”. A weird wad of intellectual, autobiographical, and religious references, Gepetto Washing Pinocchio is typical of Rego’s rich storytelling and offers a kind of key for decoding the secret lexicon of her alluringly forbidding art.

The Cruel Stories of Paula Rego is at the Musée de l’Orangerie from 17 October 2018 to 14 January 2019. 

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