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Thursday, 9 June 2022

Paula Rego: Secrets of Faith

The last exhibition held within the lifetime of Paula Rego, who died yesterday, is Secrets of Faith, an exhibition in Venice organised by Victoria Miro and open until 18 June.

"Completed in 2002, the works on view depict episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary – subjects familiar in Christian art radically retold by Rego that are among the most special to the artist. ‘Of all my pictures, these were the most fun to make,’ Rego has said, and their importance can be measured by the fact that many have remained in her own collection; for years she kept one work from the cycle, Descent from the Cross, on her bedroom wall.

During his presidency of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio (1939–2021), who Rego had known as a lawyer since the 1960s and who, during the Carnation Revolution of 1974, came up with the slogan ‘Always 25 April’, invited the artist to create a series for the chapel of the Palácio de Belém, the head of state’s official residence in Lisbon. In response, Rego made Nossa Senhora, tackling Mary’s story with a curiosity and passion that resulted far in excess of the eight works which were eventually installed in the chapel.

This exhibition features additional works from the cycle and a number of related watercolours that reveal Rego’s thought processes as she depicts Mary viewed from the lived experience of women – embracing the Virgin’s iconography while unseating serene and ethereal depictions from art history, finding the most pertinent parts of the story and dramatising them in ways that speak beyond the traditional narrative. Rego’s challenge in telling the story not just from the Virgin’s perspective but from the position of an embodied female figure is one that drew on her knowledge of the Old Masters, Christian art and religious texts, as well as her own experience of flesh and faith. She deals with episodes of pain and pleasure, astonishment and fear, through the prism of her own, deeply personal life experiences – pregnancy at a young age, motherhood, the burden of grief. Of her belief in God, Rego has said, ‘I think it is because I am Portuguese and because I love stories, and Christianity is a very good story.’

Rego’s work, always defiantly unsentimental, here places centre stage the earthly body, subjected to forces that are viscerally felt. In Annunciation we see Mary, modelled by the artist’s granddaughter, as a girl in school uniform, her head tilted back in a kind of rapture before the Angel who proffers a bunch of phallic calla lilies; an unmistakably physical interjection to the narrative of the immaculate conception. Mary remains a child, as does Christ, in a number of watercolours depicting the Pietá, their youth serving to heighten a sense of their vulnerability. In Descent from the Cross, a work that Rego connects most strongly to the death of her husband, Victor Willing, in 1988, the composition accentuates the weight of the body being taken down. In Agony in the Garden, while the angel is curled over in anguish, Mary, consumed by grief, turns away.

The feminism implicit in telling Mary’s story in ways it hadn’t been before is intertwined with Rego’s relationship with faith and her formative experiences under the Salazar dictatorship in a deeply Catholic country where the most proscriptive aspects of religion were felt most acutely by women. While the story may be thousands of years old, these scenes of Mary’s life are entirely of a piece with Rego’s work and the wider forces of suffering and survival, agency and resolve addressed consistently throughout the seven decades of her career."

Maria Manuel Lisboa writes that "Rego’s past work, from its very earliest productions, had often visited religious themes or formats (in the case of the latter, for example, triptychs) in trademark iconoclastic manner: Annunciation, Joseph’s Dream, Deposition, Up the Tree (the latter, whether intentionally or not, a crucified female figure), to name but a few. In the late 1990s she created a series of drawings and pastels inspired by Eça de Queirós’s well-known anti-clerical nineteenth-century novel, The Crime of Father Amaro as well as a series on the theme of abortion which, provocatively, included a triptych, a format more habitually associated with religious art and particularly with altar pieces."

The following artist’s quotes below relate to the themes of the exhibition and are taken from an interview with Richard Zimler, April 2003, published in full here, and from Paula Rego: Secrets & Stories, the 2017 feature documentary directed by the artist’s son, filmmaker Nick Willing:
  • ‘It is about Mary, not about Christ. The story celebrates her – her in her own right.’ 
  • ‘It’s actually what’s in the book, only there’s a meeting between what’s in the story and my experience.’ 
  • ‘What makes it transcendent, in fact, is its human qualities, and that’s what I find moving about it.’ 
  • ‘Jesus was a man and Mary was a woman giving birth… They are people! They don’t come from outer space. They are flesh and blood.’
  • ‘The model for the young Mary was my granddaughter. In Michelangelo’s Pietà she is also a girl. Here, she’s holding a very young boy… By having young figures – even children – their vulnerability becomes much more.’ 
Secrets of Faith is not the first Rego exhibition focused on her religious work. Paula Rego/Josefa de Óbidos: religious art in the feminine was at Casa das Histórias Paula Rego from December 2020 - September 2021. This exhibition showed Rego’s religiously inspired works — alongside those of 17th-century Portugeuse artist Josefa de Óbidos. Both artists explored Catholicism and its mysteries, shared an intense sensualist charge which they both imprinted on painting, and also an imaginative ability to reconfigure religious themes.


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