I am off to the Paula Rego exhibition at the Tate. My sister invited me to a private view and has timed tickets for 7pm.
Old Father Thames looks languid as I walk across the Millennium Bridge heading for the Art Gallery. The sun has just set. A gentle warm breeze whispers across the bridge. It feels more like summer than autumn. The call of seagulls reminds me that the sea is downriver… some distance away.
‘Old Father Thames looks languid as I walk across the Millenium Bridge…’
I arrive at Tate Modern and can see no sign of my sibling. I have come to the wrong Tate! The Paula Rego is at Tate Britain which is way up river at Millbank. This is not the first time I’ve done this! I missed the Turner exhibition (just before the last lockdown) for the very same reason. Tickets are timed. To get to Tate Britain in time seems impossible. The boats have stopped running. Disappointed, I walk back cross the Millennium Bridge again and look out over the river towards Tower Bridge. The empty boat jetty’s lights glimmer upon the water. If only the boats were running, I could get to the other Tate in time!
I get an exasperated, hysterical phone call from my sister who is waiting at Tate Britain, and insisting that I get a cab. She can’t believe I’ve gone to the wrong Tate again! Since the pandemic, I’m reluctant to travel in cabs. But, she is persuasive. So I walk towards St Pauls, and an Uber arrives for me within three brief minutes.
I wind the window down and breathe in the rush of air. I enjoy the journey along the Embankment, which is lit by the biggest crescent moon perching to the left of the London Eye. The taxi speeds past it, and in no time at all, I am at Tate Britain.
Tate Britain: Paula Rego
Paula Rego is a Portuguese artist. I haven’t heard of her before. My sister gasps in horror at my ignorance, “Where have you been!” she exclaims. “Oh, probably under some dark rock somewhere…” I reply.
All is about to change as we enter the Tate.
In the exhibition
There are over a hundred of her works on show. Most are on a large scale. I pause in front of her portrait of her father, which is not so big. I like it. To me, it appears ’Bacon-esque’. Perhaps she was inspired a little by Sir Francis Bacon? Or not?
Entering a gallery where the series Possession is, I am immediately influenced by her work—and as you can see—I have to lie down.
Having a lie down
Possession is a series of poses of her model Lila Nunes lying down on a psychiatrist’s couch. I lie upon one provided most graciously by the Tate for its visitors to rest awhile.
The model is painted lying upon a psychiatrist couch. In fact, the very couch that belonged to Rego’s own therapist.
The large pastels are inspired by old Victorian medical photographs of women who suffered with Hysteria.
Hysteria is an old fashioned term for psychological disorders associated with women.
Some treatments can only leave one rather puzzled as to their efficacy, questioning the reasoning behind the medical care of the time.
In Ancient Greece, the womb was thought to wander round a woman’s body (a wandering womb is enough to make any woman hysterical, if you ask me!).
Colloquial use and meaning of the word today might refer to something funny as ‘hysterical’. For instance, when something makes me laugh, I might say ‘That comedian is hysterical!’ and I might find a friend’s joke ‘hysterical’.
Is it mis-use of the English language to say jokes are hysterical? Can a joke give women the hysterics? And make women in the audience laugh uncontrollably in their excitement, and flap about! What about the men? They can’t suffer from hysteria, can they?
I notice a visitor who looks as if she has stepped out of the Possession paintings. Perhaps she has…?
Her dress is parallel to the model’s! The same colour, the same look. Maybe I should vacate the Tate’s couch and let her have a lie down?
Paula Rego was also interested in the parallel between the poses of women diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ and the religious representations in paintings of saints of the Roman Catholic faith in a prone position (I shall need to look up these religious works, as I’m not familiar with saints lying about like this?).
Moving away from Possession and hysteria, the final painting I gaze at in this vast exhibition, is Angel, a huge pastel on paper on aluminium.
The skirt in this glorious picture reminds me of a *silk taffeta skirt I once owned. It was just like the one in the picture! It was the same pure yellow gold. And very noisy! The crisp rustling of the taffeta announcing my entrance into every room I went. Not a skirt to wear if one felt shy, and wishing to arrive unnoticed.
Aren’t memories hysterical?!
*I don’t like to wear silk anymore, as I don’t approve killing animals for fashion.
At last, we leave the collection. And I catch a glimpse of my sister reflected in a window of the lobby.
After all this exploration of Paula Rego’s powerful painting series titled Possession, Fantasy and Rebellion, Love, Devotion, Lust, Subversive Vision, Coercion and Defiance, Abortion and Abuse—I need a lie down. But not before a visit to the pub for a pint and texting for another Uber!
Bye for now
Keep safe, stay cool and don’t get hysterical.