Paula Rego: Is cultivating one’s imaginary universe a radical political act? 


A scene out of Alice in Wonderland post-psychopath interrupting the Mad Hatters tea party. Doll-like figures with oversized white rabbit heads dripping blood. One carries the other, injured. A pelican and strangely sized cherub figurine join the characters in their pleaing entreaty towards the viewer. They are clearly in pain but they are not asking the viewer for help. None meet my gaze, looking backwards or upwards instead. 

Rego painted this scene after coming across an image of an Iraqi woman and her child fleeing war in the newspapers. Instead of brushing over it and moving on with her day – making sure the toast isn’t burning or looking up to check which train stop you’ve just passed – she holds on to this image. 

From the way she works, I imagine her sketching different configurations of the people, arranging and earring props in her studio in response to the stimulus of ‘War’, finally settling on a plan for a large canvas that says and feels what she wants to capture and express.

Paula Rego’s work makes a case for how cultivating one’s capacity to imagine and to construct one’s own reality is not necessarily the luxury of privileged escapists. In the hands of another artist, I can imagine that drawing on commonly recognised tropes in children’s stories (Captain Hook, the Seven Dwarves, the evil stepmother) could feel kitschy and cliched. 

But instead I feel like her paintings show the way that each of our imagined universes impinge on and influence reality. Violence and pain occur in the world partly because people are acting out culturally-scripted roles. People look for rhythms and patterns in the randomness of life events, we act according to some sort of notion of one’s life having a narrative arc. 

This is a series of drawings called ‘Human Trafficking’. 

Each character in the complex mass of bodies has a presence and a set of cultural stereotypes which I immediately associate them with. Part of the excitement of Rego’s work and the reason it is not just cliche is because the figures are just familiar enough to be juxtaposed with their usual stereotypes. Instead of damsels in distress we have woman with character – strong yet in pain. Or we have women carrying out atrocities against others – neither victim nor exactly evil stepmother. 

By breaking down the boundary between the imaginary and the real, I feel like Rego presents the everyday – the domestic, the childish, the familial – in a light where it is soaked through with fantasy and mystery. In doing this, even the practice of shining a shoe or petting a dog become worthy of myth, special rituals creating and recreating special types of characters like ‘The Soldier’s Wife’. 

Coming away from the exhibition, I am most puzzled by how Rego creates the settings for her characters. The interaction between the characters is completely believable, the painting itself demanding to be interpreted and for a narrative to be stapled on to it. However, it is impossible to place the spaces in which the characters exist. Are they stage sets? Interiors? Medieval landscapes? What scale even are the characters? Who is human, who is object and who is animal? 

I wonder if the ambiguity of the space – yet the overall complete believability of the painting – comes from the years of making collages. Although her early work feels very different from what comes later in the 1980s, I feel like the freedom with which she cut up and collaged the visual material around her – including her own drawings – was a physical method which trained and extended her imaginary capacity. 

She was used to taking icons and symbols from popular childhood stories, mixing these with newspaper cutting and her own mark making and thus blurring the boundary between images of ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’, past and present. 

I feel like this freedom to pick and choose symbols and to navigate fluidly between imagination and reality must have shaped the way she later made studies for paintings. Rego would both sketch compositions from the imagination and make life drawings from models in order to come up with plans for paintings. Being able to mix the imagination and reality physically in her studio make collage something she do through the figurative visual language of traditional painting. 
Overall, I feel inspired by the way Rego used ‘the real world’ as a guidance for the subject matter and the feeling-tone of her paintings. She was not painting from an ivory-tower that looked only at the art world itself. She was not afraid to address universal existential questions with her work and she powerfully mobilised her own love of fantasy and fairy tale to construct scenes with power. Her paintings have power in reality precisely because they mobilise a common imaginary universe which we all share. It is repeated patterns in the stories we are surrounded by which make it so clear what characters are feeling and how this relates to political events outside of the gallery.

By Anna Curtz Price

‘War’ by Paula Rego