In 1989, the artist Paula Rego created a series of 31 etchings and
aquatints titled Nursery Rhymes, where she references both traditional stories and fairy tales as well as her own memories from Portugal. Rego’s
images alter the viewer’s familiarity with these well-known stories, drawing out undertones of madness and desire. From 10–19 March 2015, Paula Rego: Thirty Years of Print is celebrating three decades of the
artist’s work in an online auction taking place on Christies.com.
Coinciding with the artist’s 80th birthday this year, the sale will include her most important graphic series, with many sold-out
editions and rarities spanning over 30 years of her highly acclaimed oeuvre. Below, Christie's specialist Lucia Tro Santafe investigates
the dark themes surrounding the artist's work.
ON MOTHERS, AND TERROR
The critic Robert Hughes once wrote that Rego is the ‘best painter of women's experience alive…’ In Little Miss Muffet (1989), the artist depicts
a girl reacting in fright to a giant spider, with the face of an adult. In Freudian terms, a child’s dream of a spider symbolizes the mother, who elicits
fear in her young charges. Rego is not alone in this assessment, however. Louise Bourgeois is another artist who tackles the concept of spider-as-mother.
Through these varied English nursery rhymes, the artist uses traditional narratives to explore deeper issues within our culture — of madness, violence, and loss.
was conceived as a gift for Rego’s granddaughter, Carmen.
Each image began with the artist freely drawing the general design with gouache on a copper plate prepared with a wax hard ground. She then worked with
etching needles to create the image with line and cross hatching. An etching is created when the plate is immersed in acid and the exposed, ‘drawn’ areas
corroded or etched by the acid. Areas of tone are made with aquatint — a fine layer of rosin powder applied to the plate’s surface and fused with heat
which, when etched, creates tiny pits to the surface. Once inked, the surface of the plate is wiped clean, leaving ink in the etched lines and pitted
surface. Run through a printing press under pressure, the image is transferred onto a sheet of paper. For this series Rego collaborated with the artist and
printer Paul Coldwell and the Culford Press, with whom she went on to produced a large body of etchings, many of them included for sale. When colour was
needed this was added by hand to the artist’s specifications by the painter Charlotte Hodes, Coldwell’s wife.
Rego has also worked extensively in lithography, most notably with Stanley Jones, Master printer at the Curwen Press.
ON DIFFICULT SUBJECTS
Rego is renowned for her controversial works exploring gender politics and social taboos. Her Nursery Rhymes evoke childhood dreams and
make-believe, as well as alluding to the harsher realities of abusive relationships and nascent sexuality. In Baa, Baa, Black Sheep (1989), an ancient
rhyme about the tax on the wool trade imposed by Edward I to finance his military ventures, the artist depicts an imposing ram entwining its left leg around
a young girl. This gesture is made as formally as two ballroom dancers in a suggestive encounter reminiscent of Leda and the Swan.
Like Goya’s Los Caprichos, the Nursery Rhymes expose the dark side of human nature in a macabre, sardonic way.
In Three Blind Mice (1989), the artist depicts the famous, unlucky rodent trio in the aftermath of the first victim getting its tail chopped off by the farmer’s wife. In the
left frame, she is wielding a sharp knife, and crouched in a defensive position above them, as they twist and writhe in a dance of terror below her.
‘Lots of children are cruel’, Rego told the
White Review. ‘Then you grow up, and you’re much more vulnerable than when you are a child. You feel humiliation more…’ she says. In Three Blind Mice, we see a woman
who has struck once, and is ready to lash out again.
Paula Rego: Thirty Years of Print online auction takes place from 10–19 March, 2015. Click here for more information.
Main image: Paula Rego (b. 1935), Little Miss Muffet I. Etching and aquatint, on wove paper, 1989.