War by Paula Rego, 2003
Paula Rego's disturbing picture is based on a press photograph from the war in Iraq.
Her sentiments are against the Iraq War, and, more importantly, its consequences for the women and children of the country. This is a meaty and complex image of innocence made grotesque by the horrors of war. Its image haunts the viewer long after seeing the picture.
Rego's painting War (2003) of bloodied rabbit marionettes, was inspired by a news photograph from Basra, Iraq of a young girl in a white dress running from an explosion, with a woman and her baby unmoving behind her.
She insists she is "not proselytising; I'm not aware of what I'm doing in the pictures till I've finished, sometimes not for a long time afterwards".
While a photograph of this sort might be a familiar sight in the news, replacing the victims with rabbits, a symbol of purity, gives the work a deeply disturbing angle.
Rego is a mistress of the sinister.
Rego said of War, "I thought I would do an image about these children getting hurt, but I turned them into rabbits' heads, like masks. It’s tough to do it with humans; it doesn’t get the same kind of feel at all. It seemed more real to transform them into creatures."
The more you look at War, the curiouser and curiouser it becomes. Rego's white rabbits owe more to Richard Kelly's sci-fi film, Donnie Darko than Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. The central figures belong to a tradition of religious art, forming a perverse pieta (picture or sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ on her lap or in her arms) with one rabbit dressed in Marian blue.
The image is dominated by two rabbit-headed figures in the centre, the larger one carries, the smaller, who wears a frilly pink dress, has bloody marks around its eyes and mouth, and whose legs and arms resemble those of a soft toy. On the left-hand side of the composition, behind these two figures is an ant-like figure grappling with a brown hound, and a pelican embracing a woman. In the foreground stands a row of four figures: a stork with outstretched wings who has a talon inside the pink dress of another rabbit-headed figure, and a creature in a red dress with ribbons tied to its head glaring at a diminutive woman in soldier’s dress.
A dead child or toys lying on the ground by the central pair, and a sitting cat in the top right-hand corner, add to the ominous ambiguity of the scene.
The background of the work is divided into three blocks of colour – yellow at the bottom, muddy terracotta in the middle and a foreboding dark blue at the top containing a plume of black. These bands of colour retain traces of Rego’s slight mark making, in contrast to the figures, which are more heavily worked and consequently more opaque.
And who is the tiny lady in the foreground? Perhaps it is Rego herself. The artist has described her hand as a "seismograph" recording the turbulence inside her head. War can be considered as ‘the nightmare that a child might have when the vision of death intrudes into its visual world’, a vision that may be generated by books or films and which ‘instantly perverts its previously happy and warm world.
It is very often the children who bear the consequences of wars, and in this painting, Rego is reminding us in graphic terms that it’s a shocking experience.
About Paula Rego
Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, three years into the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.
Her father, José, was an electrical engineer and her mother, Maria, had studied painting. When Rego, aged three, she was diagnosed with incipient tuberculosis, the family moved to the seaside town of Estoril whose coastal vistas feed her work.
Her father opposed the Salazar military dictatorship and the Catholic Church, which conspired to control women. Rego was never a Catholic: "I was baptised, but my father wouldn't let a priest teach me. I pray when necessary - but I don't like the Pope; the way they forbid birth control is shocking."
Her father came to work in the UK, and Paula Rego went to school in Kent and the Slade in the 50s. Drawing and painting dramatic emotional stories, she was praised for presenting a female point of view, and became the first associate artist at the National Gallery.
Rego's work has evolved from early oil paintings through collage and acrylic (she hates the smell of oils and turpentine) to what she calls pastel paintings, but her abiding love is drawing. She sees printmaking, of which she is an acknowledged master, as an extension of that. Three drawings are entitled Misericordia in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition won Hugh Casson prize for drawing.
Rego rejects received hierarchies that scorn illustration, since "pictures have always been about stories, like Christian mythology", and admires English, social satirists from Hogarth to Posy Simmonds. Besides, as she wrote in 1985: "My paintings tell stories; they do not illustrate stories... they are not narratives... everything happens in the present."
She was commissioned by the Royal Mail in 2005 to produce a set of Jane Eyre Stamps.Throughout her life, Rego has had to live with the consequences of her depression. She says that her Jungian therapy has helped her art. It has liberated it. At eighty, she continues to work every day. For her painting is not a career, but an inspiration.
The Bigger Picture
Paula Rego has earned a global reputation as the supreme artist storyteller.
But while at first, her visual fables may seem strangely innocent, another glance reveals her work to be unsentimental, with a strong undercurrent of perverse eroticism.
Often likened to Angela Carter’s revamped fairy stories, such as The Company of Wolves, Rego’s images play with the viewer’s notion of innocence. These draw us into an uncomfortable world where women are often the dominant characters. Despite their founding, in reality, Rego’s images continue to take on a dreamlike quality.
Unsurprisingly she has been influenced throughout her career by the work of the surrealist artist, Luis Buñuel and, more unusually, she claims to have been heavily influenced by early Walt Disney films.
To Rego, every picture must tell a story, and she is merely the storyteller. She explains:‘The whole world is stories, and I may as well paint them. This is a way of making sense of life through stories.’
She has occasionally created political work for propaganda purposes – the harrowing abortion series of prints, for instance, in which women are doubled up just after illegal abortions. These drew comparisons with Goya and were made as part of the referendum campaign in Portugal in 2000, which led to abortion being legalised. Rego received much of the credit for swaying public opinion. She has recently completed a series on female circumcision
Paula Rego’s work is an entanglement of both real and imagined stories and, like an allegorical collage, the characters and plots will change as she makes the work. Her work from the 1980’s, in particular, focuses more on women and the role the women play within the family and society. The narratives in her work almost always take place in the traditional setting, giving the sinister layers that underlie her work even more of a sense of power and fear that, in turn, seems to ensure that the ‘the personal always becomes political’. The fact that such familiar settings can be the basis for such disturbing narratives guarantee that the viewer connects with the piece on a very personal level, thus making it seem even more powerful.
Rego does not only use her experiences in her work but rather draws from a collection of female experiences, using literature, film and myth as her inspiration. This concoction of well-known stories, fairy tales and the every day allows a variety of women viewing her work to feel more personally engaged with it. Rego’s portrayal of women not only confronts the viewer visually but also emotionally. Rego conveys the darkness of everyday life, giving her paintings sexual undertones without ever having to show nudity or even openly lewd behaviour.
The image in War is unsettling. The figures portrayed are on different scales, to surreal and disturbing effect. Rego, in a manner recalling Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, has used masks and animal heads instead of human faces to convey the suffering of war.
The image throws up lots of interesting questions about the portrayal of war and suffering. How do we portray war from a distance? It is telling that Rego’s work is based on another image, rather than direct experience, as are so many works of art responding to war in the twenty-first century. How can artists go about depicting the pain of others, and how should we as viewers regard the pain of others?
Rego has incorporated some of the elements of classic history painting in some of the poses and the grand scale of the work, but she has imbued the pastel work with a surreal and profoundly affecting the sense of horror. The victims of Rego’s ‘War’ are almost caricature-like in their femaleness, with their pink dresses and pretty ribbons, and their blood and obvious pain jars. It is notable that Rego only hints at the moment of physical destruction, choosing to portray the victims instead