'The discipline of dance is half-learned and ill rehearsed; the body's craving for love and affection takes precedence over the acquisition of dance steps' (M. Pointon, 'Paula Rego', Spellbound: Art and Film, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1996, p. 110).
Hyacinth - Reclining Hippo from Walt Disney's Fantasia (1995) offers a poignant and playfully subversive restaging of Walt Disney's classic, Fantasia. Strong yet somehow vulnerable, self-sufficient but waiting for love, Paula Rego's dancer is a magnificent example of the artist's impassioned storytelling inspired by the studies of female dancers undertaken by Edgar Degas in the early twentieth century. Situated between Rego's seminal Dog Woman (1994) series and the Dancing Ostriches (1995) formerly part of the Saatchi Collection, Hyacinth - Reclining Hippo from Walt Disney's Fantasia, was created in celebration of the centenary of British cinema. This project culminated in Rego's contribution to London's Hayward Gallery's Spellbound: Art and Film exhibition in 1996, including works inspired by her favourite Disney films: Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia. A powerful chronicler of human nature, the present work tells the story of a woman reenacting and reliving her youthful dreams. Reposing in a chair, one hand resting on her outstretched leg, the other raised in mid-air, Rego's dancer, has surprising nobility. Despite the clumsiness of her posture, the soft flesh of her waist and thighs, the woman has a certain pride that cannot easily be effaced. Her ankles are crossed, the satin ribbon of the scuffed, pink ballet pumps neatly wrapped around her foot. Wearing a sheer white tutu and leotard that cups her bust in delicate lace, the dancer stares resolutely into the distance, her painted scarlet lips parted, mouth wide open to reveal her pink tongue. Lightly flushed, rose colour illuminating her chest, she appears amorous, expectant. Unlike Edgar Degas, who depicted ballet dancers in perfected motion; their disciplined bodies, firm torsos and poised limbs the focus of his attention, Rego sheds light on the dancer's emotional life and sexuality as well as her physical imperfections in all their corporeal mass. In doing so, she subverts the romance of the ballet. As Pointon notes, 'here the discipline of dance is half-learned and ill rehearsed; the body's craving for love and affection takes precedence over the acquisition of dance steps' (M. Pointon, 'Paula Rego', Spellbound: Art and Film, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1996, p. 110).
In Hyacinth - Reclining Hippo from Walt Disney's Fantasia, as in Rego's Dancing Ostriches, The Snow White and Pinocchio series, the artist enters a dialogue with the bright, imaginary world created by Walt Disney. In the present work, inspired by the cartoon choreography of Disney's Fantasia (1940), Rego reverses the process of animation, revealing the woman posing behind the hippo's facade. In doing so, she displays her human attributes, alongside her most base, animal qualities. As Ruth Rosengarten has described, 'Rego's allusion to animals is nominal only: without the disguise or subterfuge of caricatured zoomorphism, she focuses on that which is most poignantly human in her subjects - an eagerness, a desire to be loved, a well-meaning, earthbound clumsiness, but also a certain pride, a touch of self-esteem. In the process, sentimentality registers as a lack - a lack that is startling. There is something quite shocking in the humour, in the lack of grace, in the mixture of self-satisfaction and self-doubt that these dancers convey' (R. Rosengarten, 'Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney's Fantasia', Paula Rego, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1997, p. 102).
In Hyacinth - Reclining Hippo from Walt Disney's Fantasia, Rego rendered her composition directly from life, translating the contours and physiognomy of Lila, her faithful model onto canvas. For Rego, the intense physicality of her composition is a product of her deeply engaged, astonishingly skilled practice and the malleable, immediate qualities of pastel. First adopted in 1994 in her Dog Woman series, pastel has become Rego's staple medium, imbuing her characters with a unique vibrancy and emotional timbre. In Hyacinth - Reclining Hippo from Walt Disney's Fantasia, we see the marks of the pastel, the direction of each successive stroke drawing a visible link between the woman and the physical activity of her creation. As Robert Hughes has elaborated, 'the reason is simple. Unlike oil paint or watercolour, pastel is not applied with a tool. The stick of pigment is the tool itself; nothing intervenes in the application of colour layer after layer is built up, and sequences of form, such as the articulation of a knee or the bones of an ankle, become fiercely, aggressively shadowed. It is, as Rego points out, an inherently strong medium, 'overworked, masses and masses of layers changed all the time'. And it is, for that reason alone, magnificently suited to Rego's vision of women, not as 'pastel' ethereal creatures but as strong beings, both tenderly and harshly conceived' (R. Hughes, 'Paula Rego', Paula Rego, exh. cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2007, p. 123).