Alice Strang is co-curator of the exhibition Paula Rego | Obedience and Defiance. On Tuesday 17 March, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, she delivered a lecture exploring some of Rego's literary influences. The full talk is available to view at the foot of this page.
Paula Rego openly cites the wide range of literary sources which provide inspiration for her work, including plays, poems and novels. As a co-curator of the Obedience and Defiance exhibition, I became interested in the relationship between those primary sources and how Rego uses them as the starting point for her own imaginative visualisations and narrative creations.
Three major pastels in the show, as well as two drawings, come from a considerable series Rego made in reaction to Eça de Queirós’s novel The Crime of Father Amaro, which was published in Portugal in 1875 and was one of her father’s favourite books. Its plot centres on the immorality of the titular priest and his colleagues. Amaro embarks on a sexual relationship with his landlady’s daughter, Amélia, who becomes pregnant. Amaro arranges for their newborn son to be killed and Amélia dies shortly afterwards, apparently due to complications following his birth. The plot concludes with Amaro arriving in a new parish.
Rego has lived experience of clerical corruption having grown up in Portugal under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, with whose oppressive regime the Catholic Church conspired. This feeds into her Father Amaro works, which are not straightforward illustrations of scenes in the novel; rather, they reveal her unique alchemy of interpreting an author’s vision and mining it for elements which correspond with her own concerns, resulting in original imagery.
Thus The Company of Women references Amaro’s cossetting by maids during his childhood, but he is depicted not as a child as described by Queiros, but as an adult. He nestles into one of the women who surround him, not looking at them, but directly at the viewer, with an expression of comfortable defiance from his reclining, radically foreshortened pose. He is tucked under a blanket, or wearing a skirt or kilt, with his feet exposed and his adult-size shoes discarded to one side. He has rejected adulthood and is yearning for the indulgence of childhood. By changing Amaro’s age, Rego heightens the pathos, but also the ridiculousness of his situation.
The poet and writer Anthony Rudolf modelled for the character Father Amaro. Such was the impact of Amaro’s debauched character in the novel and Rego’s works, that when I was introduced to Rudolf at the opening of the Obedience and Defiance exhibition at MK Gallery last summer, I found myself reluctant to shake his hand! This was surely proof of the power of Queiros’s character and of Rego’s visualisation of him. Rudolf is actually an extremely warm and intelligent person.
On 17 March 2020, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Alice Strang will deliver a lecture entitled A Paula Rego Reading List.
Banner image: 'Painting Him Out' 2011 (inspired by Balzac's 'Unknown Masterpiece') Private Collection, courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art.