Included within our current exhibition, Paula Rego | Obedience and Defiance, is a work from the artist’s key ‘Girl and a Dog’ series. Within this series, the dog may represent Rego’s husband, Vic Willing, who at that time required nursing during the final stages of multiple sclerosis, enabling Rego to reflect on an ambivalent range of sometimes extreme emotions felt by the caregiver. Both love and aggression coexist in the works – at times the girl is tending the dog, at others it is being threatened.
Pen Reid is an artist and poet whose own husband has advanced multiple sclerosis. Ahead of Valentine’s Day, the celebration of romantic love, Pen has written the following response to Obedience and Defiance, exploring what Rego can tell us about real love, as opposed to the version usually presented to us at this time of year…
In the hands of Paula Rego, my obstinate affection for a romantic love, with its one-dimensional syrupy interpretation, is reversed smack into a mirror, encouraging me to turn around and drop the chocolates and roses. In this exhibition she lovingly twists your heart and it is not comfortable, but you will leave the heroine of your own story and with a more authentic understanding of your close relationships.
Rego draws us in with theatrical cameos where women can adopt the swagger of the male hero, sometimes clutching weapons of revenge, but often wielding a stare directly at the viewer that holds an equally daring invitation to dispute her intention. It is impossible to walk away from her work as a detached cerebral onlooker because her work is visceral and it calls to you deep in your bones to step into the frame.
Valentine’s Day offers no invitation to show up emotionally along with your shadow, and there is no room for confusion or doubt. Paula Rego however calls you to arms, not only in the face of discrimination and political injustice; she demands that we are honest with all that lurks in our loving hearts around personal relationships.
Consider her work where women fill the frame with submissive dog poses, tapping into shame and vulnerability or even compliance. I squirm inwardly and yet in the next step I meet a robust girl with an equally full-bodied dog on her knee. The dog surrenders to her grasp and to the chain she fastens around its neck. Rego was her husband’s carer and here she plays with the conflicting emotions of intimate relationships - the affection and resentment.
A deeper more ugly truth is revealed to me with the piece, and I resent Rego for this. I recognise my anger at the powerlessness of my own husband, who like Rego’s has advanced multiple sclerosis. Rego has swung me from obedience to dominance and there is cruelty implied in the main protagonist and in other work that addresses the role of carer that tightens my throat. There is also a mood of revenge that hangs darkly. I need a quiet place to contemplate my unease.
I sit in the top gallery. I love my husband deeply and I loathe Rego for undermining this love and forcing forward shadows and secrets that we hide from each other and ourselves. I am his carer, and here lies the monster, and Rego is unforgiving in revealing this to me. I sit with this and gradually grow to understand that behind her brutality is a passionate and defiant forgiveness for all women who find themselves with the contradictory feelings experienced in familial love. The monster retreats.
I realise she has put me through a process and although her work seems like a punishing mirror, it is not. She tells a story, often a disturbing harsh tale that pulls you in to the point of becoming the protagonist yourself. Here is the twist, women are conditioned to easily feel shame, to imagine how others perceive them negatively and Rego knows this and plays with this tendency.
Rego challenges us to own our own story, and to reject any part of her narratives that are not relevant, but only after we have felt them first. She is cruel to be kind, and I feel gratitude that the romantic love in my life is made bare. It is not a traditional Valentine’s Day romance
, it is a richer, deeper and more authentic relationship after passing through Rego’s world. Now I can embrace both the dark and the light of being in love.