14 Little Pieces on Love

Updated: Mar 11

Deryn Rees-Jones


(i)

Over the last five years I have spent a great deal of time with Paula Rego’s pictures, writing about them critically, charting the series of transformations they have made across the eight decades of her life. Some of the time, I have been thinking about them in ways which draw on my own life, seeing in them, as so many women do, moments of correspondence and recognition. The first images of hers that I remember making a huge impression on me – at the Tate exhibition in Liverpool in 1996, when I was in my late twenties – were the Dog Women pictures from 1994. The pictures, on every encounter, are extraordinary. At this point they were the newest and perhaps the most dramatically different images in her oeuvre, testimony (as we can see now, in retrospect) both to all that was ahead, and all she had left behind. Gone were the large-scale collages. Gone were the vibrant, sometimes graffiti- or cartoon-like images of the early 1980s which had metamorphosed into acrylic paintings, often of families or couples, tending each other, locked in power dynamics that carried all the weight and subtext of Oedipal struggle, retranslated into explorations of gender and power. Instead, here were huge pastels of lone, clothed, female human bodies – in part a response to paintings by Degas of naked women as they bathed – which had at their heart the inability of language to speak what only the body can, in movement and gesture. They matter to me as images which evoke visceral feelings, about love and loss, power and desire, but also – and perhaps this is incidental – because they seemed to both pose and answer aesthetic questions I have been trying to think about in my own work as a poet. They ask me to think about how to represent the female body, about power and vulnerability, about how to situate a female space in time, and even more specifically, about the relationship between language and image, words and things.



(ii)

To reconstruct the narrative of one’s life is, of course, always a project of re-ordering, and rethinking, an unstable project punctuated with revelations of plot and meaning. But I remember at that point in my life – having finished my formal studies, left a long and formative relationship with a much older man, and returned to the city of my childhood where my father was newly diagnosed with cancer – the sense of shock the Dog Women instilled in me. At about the same time I carried around with me Gillian Rose’s then new and marvellous book Love’s Work (1996), which I kept on buying and giving to friends. ‘To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds,’ writes Rose, as she was herself dying with cancer.[i] Even now I am not quite sure why that book had such a profound effect. But perhaps there is a space in hindsight to see the importance of the juxtaposition between art and life, and the potent sense of something shifting in me as Rego’s pictures lodged in me, took hold.


(iii)

As much as was possible – while I was writing about Rego so many years later, for my book, The Art of Story – I made trips to see her pictures on the flat walls of galleries. Viewing Rego’s work in books and catalogues, my body was removed from the textures and colours, but also from a kind of measurement of the real, and from the viewer’s ability to partake in the narrative. The images seen collectively in a catalogue or monograph are deeply moving, vibrant, and full of energy; they give us access to seeing them as part of a narrative; but up close the pictures become personal and create a dynamic that the best reproduction cannot ever find. Rego’s drawing from life, using models such as Lila Nunes and then later her partner, the poet Anthony Rudolf, makes us think about representation not simply as mimesis. These pictures are never illustrations, but they are translations, interventions, often turning rigid and binary models of thinking aside, transforming text to image, via an embodied relationship with a live model. The image may simultaneously incorporate references to earlier artworks, pulling the viewer into the unchartered and often unsayable spaces between words and things.

As I looked, and continued to look, in galleries in London, Portugal, and Paris, I consciously placed myself alongside them, inhabiting them in a space, looking at them very close up and also at a remove, being present with them, with my entire body. The difference between the viewing of an image and the reproduction is, obviously, huge. But perhaps because Rego is always asking us how we look, and how we are looked at, in a very particular kind of way, such looking is overdetermined. In part this is to do with the scale – the bodies we meet when we look at the pictures are literally larger than life. Their size demands that we see them up close, as if a magnifying glass has been placed on reality. Crucially too, with their magpie-like assimilation, the pictures also suspend us in time, reaching back through an intertextual overlay of Old Masters’ narratives that have gone before. Repeatedly, they force us to magnify the present and, at the same time, look back.


(iv)

In April 2020, I was among those of the first wave to catch Covid, an encounter that left me pretty much bedridden for a year. I have not been well enough to visit museums or galleries, and missed the big retrospective of Rego’s work at Tate Britain, curated so beautifully by Elena Crippa, and which I have only ‘seen’ via the catalogue. Throughout such a strange period of time, when I’ve been conscious every day of the fallibility of my own body, and of the precarious relationship I have to it, I’ve been aware, too, of the extent to which it has still managed to hold the memory of previous encounters with Rego’s pictures. And I’ve been fascinated from afar by the photographs on Instagram which have shown us the backs of women who stand or sit in front of the images within the gallery space, looking at pictures whose figures so carefully position the gaze at each other, and at us. Seeing these photos was deeply affecting. Held at a distance, I’ve paradoxically been reminded how much the pictures create forcefields of energy that can almost be overwhelming in the gallery space.


(v)

'Snare'. Paula Rego, 1987. (Copyright: Paula Rego)

The Dog Women evolved out of Rego’s earlier pictures of young girls and dogs: they pick up a colour or an image, drop and recover it, as intimacy and the sexuality of adolescence is dramatized in their dangerous-feeling games. Instead of girl and dog, we have an image of girl-as-dog: a transformation into a new feeling of aloneness, fury. The next time I saw the Dog Women was in the Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris in 2018. Back home I wondered again about their power as, in a local café, balancing catalogues on small tables and my knees, I looked at them again in reproduction, and typed as spontaneously as I could. Try free-associating around a Dog Woman. I look at the pictures now in different books, each version giving me something different. And I remember again what I was trying to capture: the sense of the body being the only vehicle for suffering when there is no language.


(vi)

'Dog Woman'. Paula Rego, 1994. (Copyright: Paula Rego)

How might we imagine canine grief? In what way does human grief manifest in non-human form? The Dog Women sequence is a sequence about mourning, for a dead husband. To be a dog means to enter a space without verbal language. The Dog Women are women without shame who embody feeling. Was this initial image of a woman an act of hallucination, or reversed anthropomorphism? Perhaps the only dogs in the room when we look at a Dog Woman are the dogs of language, memory and imagination. As Wallace Stevens writes in The Necessary Angel, poems are the voice of ‘the inhuman making choice of a human self’[ii]. It took me twenty years and several runs at writing a sequence of poems in response to the Dog Women. At the time, I was also trying to write about my own experiences of the loss of a spouse. I don’t think I knew it then, but the pictures activated something dormant in me about the power and fury of transformation, as well as one’s vulnerability to it when grieving. There is an energy that can equally sit alongside a disorientation or a lassitude, and there is also a sense that sometimes neither the body nor language is enough to encompass or communicate states of mind. In my poem, thinking of these pictures, I wrote of ‘the moment of pain when the music holds’:


Out of blood, out of debris,

snuffling, singing, settling skirts and shaping

the emptiness, dog howling, dog waking


doggedly dogging, dog being born. [iii]


(vii)

Certain words always crop up in relation to Rego’s work, and Crippa’s catalogue to the retrospective is no exception: subversion, theatricality, women, desire, fantasy, resistance. It’s fascinating, too, to see how art travels between countries. I was struck, for example, that it is ‘Love’ which has been used to advertise the exhibition currently near the end of its show at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague, before it relocates to Spain.

'Love'. Paula Rego, 1995. (Copyright: Paula Rego)

(viii)

The model who posed for this image, Lila Nunes, has a face which Rego recognises is not unlike her own. Rego’s use of Nunes from the early 1990s has – as I argued when writing The Art of Story – circumvented the route that many important women artists took from the 1970s onwards, of putting their own bodies into the picture they were creating. And yet here we see Nunes in images which show her as part of a story – one we may or may not know, or may need to invent – not as herself. In many ways Nunes is exactly that, not herself, because in her physical similarity to Rego, she is also a version of Rego, her body thrown like a ventriloquist’s into the body of another, and another and another. On the one occasion I visited Paula in her studio, Lila Nunes opened the door and I startled at meeting, for the first time, a face that I felt I already knew so well.


(ix)

But where does ‘Love’ (1995) sit in relation to these twelve images (rarely if ever hung together) from 1994, of women exploring their grief? Rego’s figure in ‘Love’ holds a pose that is contemplative and static; it seems to look forward to the later abortion pictures from 1998, and to the ‘Possession’ series of 2004. The woman looks away from the gaze of the viewer, and is positioned on a red cloth. ‘Love’ might be seen as the last of the Dog Women images, or as the first of a new set of images that saw Rego beginning to explore images from Disney, with her Snow White and Dancing Ostriches sequences. The woman’s mouth is open, in what might be a smile. The corners of her mouth turn up. We see her teeth. But this is not a dog-like snarl, or the image of a woman simply in an act of contemplation… What words fly through our thoughts and bodies as we look? Resignation, abdication, hopefulness, fatigue? There isn’t respite. Her palms are folded across her chest, in a way that looks staged. What is this gesture? A gesture of prayer? Of gratefulness? It speaks to me also of a last gesture, the placing of her hands of the dead across their torso. Yet this picture is one that speaks so much of being alive. Her bare legs bent on the cloth, dress reaching above the knee, are foregrounded. At the centre of the image the dress is open, the buttons have not been buttoned up or are about to be unbuttoned further, revealing a triangle of flesh. As I continue to look, the image doesn’t speak to me of a revelation, say, of a truth to the unbeliever, of a messianic wound in the side. This triangle is placed where the umbilicus might be, but there is no mark there to connect the woman to the separation from the mother. There is no scar, no wound, rather an emptiness of relationality, or revelation. Love and nothing are the words that come to mind.


(x)

I think about the word love and the word desire. In Rego’s picture, the rich, dark redness of the cloth around her speaks to me of the internal body, its blood, its fleshly interiority. In ways that a Rego picture so forcefully can, we are hurled into a stream of association and ghostly recall of the Old Masters – the red cloth reminds me, too, of Velázquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ (1647-1651). The cloth at the back of that picture reappears in later Rego pictures – a habit Rego has of dragging and reinventing one image to the next. Velázquez’s image allows the viewer access to the desirable, naked and available body of the woman, at the same time as it reminds us that she has an identity, she is a subject. Her gaze at herself – which is physically impossible, the angle is wrong – is a gaze returned to us, even if we are not met head-on by it. It looks at the image of Venus whose gaze, like ours, is on her.

'Rokeby Venus'. Diego Velázquez, 1647-1651.

Rego’s explorations of and games with gazes offer another way through. What, she seems to ask, is the connection between rupture and rapture? There is no way into the materiality of this woman’s body, ‘Love’ seems to say. The white space of the flesh revealed is weirdly external – we are being let into the flatness of representation where there is no wound, no umbilical scar. It is a gap, a gape, a wound that is not fleshly but at the same time reminds us of the frailties of the flesh. It is an opening to the body, but it highlights Rego's strategies for representing the fleshly body, which she frequently defers to the performance of clothes.


(xi)

In the course of three decades, Rego’s pictures have reminded me that structures of power, and the ways in which women exist within them, change, and that change, states of liminality and transformation, can be full of pain. An encounter with a Rego picture frequently demands you ask questions – about agency, but also about ethics: Who is doing what to whom? Where does the power lie? We are drawn in, but also thrown, radically, forcefully back to ourselves. More than anything, Rego’s picture ‘Love’ reminds us: This is a picture. The white triangle is also the emptiness of the canvas, white pigment on a flat surface. Painted, but seemingly standing in for the unpaintable. It is the canvas disguised as itself. All noise, but without a sound. It operates as what Barthes termed the puncturing moment of a photograph, the punctum[iv]. This punctum becomes the focus of interpretation, the shocking moment that draws the eye and around which an image coalesces. The triangle of flesh at the centre of the image reminds us of a displacement of the triangle of the mons veneris. This gap, this gape, this unbuttoning of the picture itself, which has no visible button or fastening. My friend, a translator and poet, reminds me that there are many ways of translating punctum: point, wound, sting.


(xii)

‘Love’ also sends me back to another picture: Piero della Francesca’s ‘Madonna del Parto’ (painted around 1460). This is not because I think Rego was thinking about it, but for purely personal reasons, because it is part of my own psychic repertoire. It was a picture I went to see – a sort of pilgrimage – on my honeymoon. In this image of the virgin in a blue dress, the woman opens up her body to Christ in an act that is part revelation and part radical seduction.

'Madonna del Parto'. Piero della Francesca, approx. 1460.

The virgin opens her dress as angels flanking her simultaneously open up her image to us from behind curtains. She performs her own unravelling and becoming, against a textured backdrop that reminds us of the inside of the female body. By contrast, Rego’s woman – is she a virgin? does it matter? – lies daydreaming, resting in a position of betweenness. There is no evidence of buttons, no place on the dress to give us permission to enter or to leave. Where is inside and where is out? We are not sure if something has happened or is about to pass. The shocks of the body and of memory are bound in that moment of anticipated, un-completed action. As I think about ‘Love’, I realise that even though it is a picture I know well, somehow it has slipped from the pages of my own book about Rego. Its absence has become the white triangle, the punctum in the text of my own narrative.


(xiii)

I am not an art critic, but a poet. Saying this out loud on the page reminds me of poet and art curator Frank O’Hara’s famous poem, ‘Why I am not a painter’. I am not a painter, but I am a poet, he continues. But why, O’Hara goes on to ask: I think I would rather be / but I am not. For O’Hara, what is important in this poem is the space between process and language. In the poem he recounts the evolution of a painting by his friend Mike, who solves a visual problem by introducing the image of a tin of sardines. As the picture evolves, the representation of the thing, the tin, becomes overpainted and reduced only to the letters that were written on the tin. O’Hara’s poem springs to mind not simply because writing about art has left me feeling like somewhat of an interloper, but because in Rego’s work the relationship between words and image, story and representation, is at the fulcrum of her thinking. Wanting to be something, a critic or a poet, or indeed an artist, demands a certain coalescence of the self. As I have written about Rego, I have often slipped and called her pictures poems. Am I making a case, I wonder, for Rego as a poet? Certainly, Rego has a deep love of poetry. And like a lyric poem, Rego’s pictures ask us not only what is happening but what might have happened, while offering at the same time a moment of promised revelation, something – like gesture? – that is just about to be known.


(xiv)

'Love in the studio'. Instagram @paularegostudio, May 2020.

When I look again at ‘Love’, the last look before sending off this essay to my editor, this little collage of thoughts and feelings, it is like taking the last look at a lover. Now I see how the triangle in the centre of the woman’s body is echoed by the black triangle formed on the cloth by shadow at the top of her legs. I notice how the woman’s hair spreads out to the edges of the image, reaching beyond the story we are allowed to see, how the representation of hair begins to blend with the texture and colour of the shadows on the red cloth. I think about the materiality of the image, paper bonded on to aluminium, to keep it strong. I imagine the way Rego, working with pastel, might have invested so much strength in the process of creating this woman, the energy it must have taken to get the depths and richness of the red as she scratched and rubbed at the paper, the more intricate strokes it must have taken to portray her hands (always, like feet, so difficult to draw) pressed against her heart. I think about the Dog Women and the bridge ‘Love’ makes to future pictures. I think about the textures and patterns of ‘Love’, so full of Rego’s touch, which can never be touched, except illicitly, by the spectator.

I think about the half-formed thought, and all the spaces between thoughts and feelings.


I try to imagine the conversation when the sitting was complete, the pose dissolved, the model and the artist leaving the studio, walking away.

 

Deryn Rees-Jones is a poet, editor and critic. Paula Rego: The Art of Story was published by Thames & Hudson in 2019. Her most recent book of poems, Erato, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2019, and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. She lives in Liverpool.

[i] Gillian Rose, Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life, with an Introduction by Michael Wood (New York: New York Review of Books (2011) p. 105. [ii] See Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) who cites Stevens via Mutlu Blasing’s Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasures of Words (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006). [iii] See ‘Dogwoman’ in What It’s Like to Be Alive: Selected Poems (Bridgend: Seren, 2016). [iv] See Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).


Images of the paintings by Paula Rego, as well as the Instagram photos, have been used with the consent of her family.

594 views