I stumbled upon Paula Rego’s work as I conducted more research in narrative art. I found her work of particular interest because of the way she appropriates the narratives she read in books without being dictated by them. She uses them as a starting point I suppose. She visually rewrites the narratives and turns them into a series of paintings. Looking at her work is similar to reading in between the lines. What is more important is what has been left out rather than told. She accentuates some details and leaves others out. She has no interest in conventional ideas of beauty, or in conventional ideas of art. Art, she says, is ‘disgusting and to be avoided’, by which she probably means do not play it safe and sterile. What interests her is ‘the beautiful grotesque’.
I am particularly interested in the body of works that reference fairy tales. She doesn’t shy away from showing the dark aspects of these tales. For instance, in Little Red Riding Hood, the themes of ambiguity and violence are present just as they are in the tale itself.
At the end of the tale, Little Red Riding Hood’s innocence dies with her as she is eaten by the wolf. Some theoreticians such as Zack Zipes, an expert on Brothers Grimm, argued that the ending was a sexual act symbolising the chaos of nature. The Brother Grimm tales are still very relevant since we are still attracted to them today. They deal with essential human struggles which are universal and sadly all too common. Most fairy tales are dark because they deal with traumatic incidents that have happened in real life. They can be whimsical despite the dark overtone but they are satisfying because they give the readers a catharsis that helps him overcome whatever it is he s dealing with. I am of course looking at this from an adult’s point of view. A child may not be aware of the undertone especially since there has been many different versions of fairy tales. Some have been turned as a cautionary story warning children to behave and listen to their parents. So in the case of LIttle Red Riding Hood, if she had listened and never left the path, nothing bad would have happened to her.
Contemporary filmmakers and writers, however, reinvent earliest versions of the tale by indulging in the very dark symbolism and the theme of sexual awakening. I am thinking of “Red Riding Hood” written by David Johnson which Catherine Hardwicke directed. Here a werewolf is introduced in medieval times.
Rego’swork illustrates fully the Portuguese proverb :”Whoever tells a story adds a facet.” As a painter, printmaker and collage artist, her style moved away from loose lines to stronger ones. Rego was influenced by surrealism and in particular by the work of Joan Miro. She is in the tradition of automatic drawings whereby the artist disengages the conscious mind from the process of making, allowing the unconscious to direct the image making. But no matter what, her work has always a strong narrative element in place.
My thinking process
Her approach is appealing as I have never adopted this process before. I am more of a planner. I suppose I take a lot of time planning in my head and jolting things down before actually grabbing a paintbrush. I wouldn’t have the confidence of tackling a blank canvas (and I like to paint big) without the initial thought process. I then have the feeling I anticipated as many problems of composition, theme …as possible before new ones arise as I go along. It leaves free to then grow the work organically directly on the canvas.
I think best when I take my dog for a walk. This is when my problem solving happens. Rain or shine, I brave the element because it is the only way I can declutter the mess in my brain. And also it is really healthy so I kill two birds with one stone.
For my characters, I take a very similar approach. I become an actor. I act the scene. I take the pose. For Max and Misty, being animals, it could have been a bit more tricky but it wasn’t since I turned their personalities into tantrum toddlers. I had to worry about accurate anatomy and realistic situations. I couldn’t have had Max in a tree but Misty could. Sometimes, it is like working backwards. Where do I need to get to and how can I get there?
For my paintings, I adopt the same approach. I will think about what I want to say and how I want people to perceive it. Whether they will or not is actually neither here nor there. I sketch my characters directly on the canvas. I refine them in my sketchbook where, like a magpie I gathered all my references. Very often, the composition has been changed over and over so maybe I should adapt a different approach.
Like Rego, I am fascinated by stories and fairy tales. My favourite book of all times is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll.For the painting below, I wanted to have a medley of characters and different scenes from the book and one monochromatic painting. As I went along, I had to leave a lot of characters out and decided to add a splash of red. This led me to think of a series of paintings in different colours and the symbol of each colour…Another project in progress.