PAULA REGO (1935-2022)
PAULA REGO (1935-2022)
PAULA REGO (1935-2022)
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PAULA REGO (1935-2022)

Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney's 'Fantasia'

PAULA REGO (1935-2022)
Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney's 'Fantasia'
pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, in two parts
(i) 63 5⁄8 x 60 1⁄8in. (161.5 x 152.6cm.)
(ii) 63 x 47 ½in. (160 x 120.5cm.)
Executed in 1995
Marlborough Fine Art Inc., New York.
Saatchi Collection, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2008.
S. Kent and J. McEwen, Paula Rego: The Dancing Ostriches from Disney’s ’Fantasia’, London 1996, pp. 16 and 34 (partially illustrated in colour, pp. 31-32).
J. McEwen, Paula Rego, London 1997, p. 229 (illustrated in colour, pp. 230-231).
F. Bradley, Paula Rego, London 2002, no. 62 (illustrated in colour, p. 76).
J. McEwen, Paula Rego: Behind the Scenes, London 2008, p. 36.
E. Booth-Clibborn (ed.), The History of the Saatchi Gallery, London 2011 (illustrated in colour, pp. 430-431).
W. Cook, ‘Fantasia in paint: How Paula Rego made Disney dance’ in BBC Arts, October 2016 (illustrated in colour).
D. Rees-Jones, Paula Rego: The Art of Story, London 2019, pp. 134 and 177 (illustrated in colour, pp. 184-185).
London, Hayward Gallery, Spellbound: Art and Film, 1996 (right panel illustrated in colour, p. 112.)
New York, Marlborough Gallery Inc., Paula Rego: New Work, 1996-1997, no. 6 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol, L'École de Londres de Bacon à Bevan, 1998-1999, p. XI (illustrated in colour, p. 184-185). This exhibition later travelled to Santiago de Compostela, Auditorio de Galicia and Vienna, Kunst Haus Wien. Museum Hundertwasser.
Liverpool, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Paula Rego, 1997, p. 150, nos. 72 and 73 (right panel illustrated in colour, p. 103; left panel illustrated in colour, p. 111). This exhibition later travelled to Lisbon, Centro Cultural de Belém.
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Paula Rego, 2007-2008, p. 279 (illustrated in colour, pp. 146-147; right panel illustrated in colour, p. 259). This exhibition later travelled to Washington, National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Cascais, Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Paula Rego, 2009-2010 (illustrated in colour, p. 33).
Monterrey, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, Paula Rego, 2010-2011, cat. 067 (illustrated in colour, pp. 100-101). This exhibition later travelled to Sao Paulo, Pinacoteca de São Paulo.
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Paula Rego: Dancing Ostriches, 2016, nos. 7 and 8 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, Les contes cruels de Paula Rego, 2018-2019, pp. 34, 54, 73 and 201, no. 92 a and b (illustrated in colour, pp. 162-163).
Milton Keynes, MK Gallery, Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance, 2019-2020, pp. 124 and 172-173 (illustrated in colour, p. 125; left panel illustrated in colour, p. 165; right panel illustrated in colour, p. 167). This exhibition later travelled to Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art.
London, Marlborough Gallery, On View: Works by Paula Rego, 2021.
Hannover, Kestner Gesellschaft, Paula Rego: There and Back Again, 2022-2023.
Further details
This work has been requested for loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel in 2024-2025.

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Formerly part of the Saatchi Collection, Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney’s 'Fantasia' is a masterpiece that stands among Paula Rego’s most virtuosic, theatrical and ambitious works. Executed upon two monumental panels, it is the finest and most complex in her extraordinary series of the same name. Made in 1995, shortly after her ground-breaking embrace of pastel, the cycle was created for the exhibition Spellbound: Art and Film at the Hayward Gallery, London the following year. It was inspired by a scene in Walt Disney’s animation Fantasia (1940), in which a group of ostriches perform the ballet ‘Dance of the Hours’ from Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda (1876). Where Disney cast his dancers as animals, however, Rego translates them back into women. Across the series, her subjects rail against balletic stereotypes of youth, beauty and femininity, each a complex expression of power and vulnerability. The present work was conceived as the grand overture to the entire suite. Prominently exhibited over the past three decades, it represents an icon of Rego’s practice, capturing the fables, fantasies and frictions of female experience that underpin her art.

Commemorating 100 years of cinema in Britain, Spellbound was a major exhibition that explored the relationship between art and film. Organised in collaboration with the British Film Institute, it featured commissions from ten artists including Damien Hirst, Steve McQueen, Fiona Banner, Douglas Gordon and Eduardo Paolozzi. Rego, for her part, turned to Disney. Growing up in Antonio Salazar’s Portugal, where her father ran the country’s first private cinema, she had adored watching his films with her grandmother, and would come to regard him as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. Like Disney, Rego was fascinated by fairy tales, myths and folklore: storytelling genres that allegorised the human condition. The layers of humour, pathos and tragedy in his animations, as well as his anthropomorphic use of animals, had a profound influence upon her art. Citing Fantasia as one of her favourites, Rego made five works based on the film’s dancing ostrich sequence. Consisting of eight panels, they include a triptych, three single-panel works and the present diptych. She also made two additional works inspired by a related scene featuring dancing hippos, as well as separate suites derived from the films Snow White (1937) and Pinocchio (1940).

Lila Nunes—Rego’s great muse and friend, who posed for Dancing Ostriches—explains that the artist intended the present work to be hung as ‘doors to all the other pictures in the series … like a chapel’ (L. Nunes, quoted in J. McEwan, Paula Rego: Behind the Scenes, London 2008, p. 36). Indeed, with its deep blue backdrop, the work has all the grandeur of a religious fresco. While the others in the series feature combinations of one, two or three women, here Rego depicts a vast congregation, assembled as rival tribes who posture and glare across the diptych’s divide. The troupes seem ready to spar with one another, skirts hitched up and thighs bared. Some lunge forwards in attack; others bristle in defence. Their ballet shoes—save for a single figure on the right—have been discarded in readiness for conflict. As the critic Sarah Kent writes, they call to mind ‘angels banked up on the clouds of a Tintoretto melodrama … eyeing one another across the heavens of some turbulent Last Judgement’ (S. Kent, Paula Rego: The Dancing Ostriches from Disney’s Fantasia, London 1996, n.p.).

For all their celestial fantasy, however, Rego’s women remain resolutely earthbound. Though ‘showing off’ and ‘courting attention’, she explained, their bravado ultimately fades away (P. Rego, quoted in F. Bradley, Paula Rego, London 2002, p. 82). Barely able to pirouette, let alone fly, they remain locked in their collective reverie. Their bodies spill out of their black feathery garments: poignant reminders of their animal avatars. One submerges her face in her costume, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Fear, desire, yearning and surrender flicker across their faces. They are ‘pictures of states of mind’, wrote the critic John McEwan at the time; ‘… the most “abstract”, in the imaginative sense, of [Rego’s] career so far’ (J. McEwan, Paula Rego: The Dancing Ostriches from Disney’s Fantasia, ibid.). Perhaps, he suggests, the eight panels that make up the series are all different expressions of the same woman’s internal monologue. Since many of the dancers are based on Nunes—a woman whom Rego saw as an alter-ego of sorts—is the work to be read as a multi-faceted self-reflection?

Made at the height of her career, and at the dawn of her seventh decade, the work certainly spoke deeply to Rego’s own feelings. ‘The Ostriches couldn’t have been done if I hadn’t been the age I am’, she explained. ‘A younger woman wouldn’t know what it was like, longing for things that are not gone’ (P. Rego, quoted in J. McEwan, ibid.). Her dancers, eternally poised in the wings, know that they will never be lithe, youthful ballerinas. At the same time, however, a sense of hopeful defiance pervades the work. Unlike Disney’s ostriches, these women are no longer content to be parodied as a gaggle of silly, flightless birds. Instead, they embrace their imperfect bodies and awkward gaits, rejecting their restrictive shoes and hoisting up their impractical garments. Where Disney’s animators had drawn their original characters from a ‘very tall, very ostrich-like girl’ who ‘performed the routine to perfection’, Rego delights in stripping away any sense of girlish grace (J. Cluhane, quoted in ibid.). The cartoon’s coquettish caricature dissolves as the ostriches are rehumanised: the illusions of cinema give way to reality.

For all its complexity, both Rego and Nunes recalled the fundamental joy of making the series. Nunes, notably, claimed that the Dancing Ostriches are ‘still my favourite’ (L. Nunes, ibid.). The two shared fond memories of shopping at a specialist dance shop in Covent Garden, where they sourced a tutu and ballet shoes. After completing a few line drawings of Nunes in her studio, using cushions to support her in deliberately awkward positions, Rego explained that the work ‘took on a life of its own’ (P. Rego, quoted in J. McEwan, ibid.). Thereafter, she worked directly in pastel, with no preliminary sketches, completing the works over a period of several months. The artist purposefully avoided rewatching Fantasia, relying on her memory of the ostrich dance sequence as well as occasionally referring to images in John Cluhane’s illustrated history of the film. Other models occasionally joined in, including Flaminia Cinque: an actress who was friend of Rego’s daughter. The staggering variety of postures achieved across the series, writes Deryn Rees-Jones, calls to mind the works of Eadweard Muybridge, ‘almost in mimicry of the stop-start animation used by Disney’ (D. Rees-Jones, Paula Rego: The Art of Storytelling, London 2019, p. 177).

Rego has explained that she was drawn to Fantasia for its abundance of ‘different stories’ (P. Rego, quoted in ‘Fantasia in Paint: How Paula Rego Made Disney Dance’, BBC Arts, 18 October 2016). With its imaginative animated tales set to well-known pieces by classical composers, the film certainly tapped into the artist’s theatrical sensibilities. Rego loved nineteenth-century French and Italian opera, and in 1982 had made a series based on works including Aida, Carmen, Faust, La Traviata and La Bohème. Disney’s choice of music for the dancing ostrich sequence, notably, stems from the same period. While Rego’s would-be dancers wilfully flout the standards of physical perfection imposed upon ballerinas in the grand theatres of Europe, the emotional drama they play out is decidedly operatic in spirit. Some have compared the women to the Harpies of Greek mythology: powerful female personifications of storm winds, who threw their unprepared victims off course. Elsewhere, they tell of turmoil, exile and unrequited longing. Various critics have juxtaposed the Dancing Ostriches with the ballerinas of Edgar Degas, which—in their own way—also sought to reveal something of the human beneath the costume.

Degas also offered an important precedent for Rego’s use of pastel. The previous year, she had completed her first series in the medium: the similarly anthropomorphic Dog Woman cycle. It would quickly assume a central role in her oeuvre, admired for its intuitive physical properties. ‘Pastel is like drawing and painting at the same time’, Rego explained (P. Rego, quoted in L. Buck, ‘Paula Rego: prints of darkness’, The Art Newspaper, 1 October 2003). This quality is brought to bear upon the present work, where crisp graphic lines and deep, impasto-like textures mingle in its chalky surface. Dazzling white highlights and velvety shadows animate the bare flesh of her subjects; the rustle of gauze and silk is almost audible. ‘[Rego] uses under-layers in shades of green—as the Old Masters did’, writes the critic Jan Dalley, ‘—overlaid by built-up layers of peaches and pinks and browns, giving weight and solidity and dimension to her magnificent fashioning of muscle and sinew and fat and skin’. The results, she suggests, prompt comparison with the paintings of Masaccio, Rembrandt, Velàzquez and Goya (J. Dalley, Paula Rego: Dancing Ostriches from Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ 1995, exh. cat. Marlborough Gallery, London 2016, n.p.).

Rego has written that her Dancing Ostriches possess a ‘very ancient’ storytelling power (P. Rego, quoted in J. McEwan, ibid.). ‘Like a sympathetic Circe’, writes Marcia Pointon, ‘she transforms Disney’s animals (with their human attributes) into humans who retain their animality’ (M. Pointon, ‘Paula Rego’, in Spellbound, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 1996, p. 110). For all their mythic, metamorphic properties, however, the message these works deliver remains startlingly contemporary. ‘Rego’s point is, after all, a powerfully feminist one’, wrote Donald Kuspit: ‘ballet takes the natural female body, in all its imperfections, and constrains it until it seems artificial and perfect. She revolts against this distorted measure of formal beauty, which in fact reflects a male ideal imposed on the female body’ (D. Kuspit, ‘Paula Rego’, Artforum, April 1997, p. 91). The present work, at heart, is an image of empowerment, its subjects alive with raw, carnal passion. They are universal symbols of the dreams we entertain, the realities to which we submit, and the fantasies that might—eventually—allow us to reconcile the two.

‘Dancing Ostriches’
By Deryn-Rees Jones, author of Paula Rego: The Art of Story

The Dancing Ostriches diptych marks a key moment in Rego’s extraordinary career. Drawing inspiration from the splendidly comic and ungainly ostriches of Disney’s animation, Rego’s intervention into the potential for transformation of woman and ostrich finds her in a sombre and provocative mood. Rego’s ostrich women speak to us—and each other—with a range of expressive gestures. With their muscular bodies and tied-back hair, they exist outside the rules of performance and direction. Only the remnants of the birds’ black tail feathers remain, visually mutated, now, into the uncomfortable-looking satin and voile costumes, which seem oddly inappropriate, ill-fitting, a parody of sexy négligée. Perhaps these women are not wholly at home with us, or with themselves, as they take on the complex and contradictory task of womanhood.

As she did with the viscerally-felt Dog Women pictures a year previously, Rego also buries in the movements of the female body a ghostly visual past. The diptych, with its scratched and luminous pastel, sees Rego developing her distinctive strategy of engaging with the Old Masters. Prominent, here, are references to Degas’ pastel-skirted ballerinas, the so-called ‘petits rats’ whose dancing lives from childhood were frequently bound up in sexual exploitation. Rego’s women, though, are typically strong, autonomous and unchoreographed. Their expressions flicker across the diptych and might be characterised as tentative, resistant, defensive, defiant, in turn.

With subtle reference to Ponchielli’s ‘The Dance of the Hours’, to which Disney’s ostriches perform, a dialogue takes place in the diptych between day, on the left panel, and night on the right. Replicating this divide on the horizontal plane of the images is the contrast between the pale and the deep blue of the background. On the left panel, the dancers use the black voile of their ballet skirts as if going about their domestic duties: one woman holds an imaginary baby, another gestures as if to set a table, to shake out laundry or table linen; another uses gauze as a veil from behind which to peer. On the right panel there is a shift of feeling. The women’s skirts are lowered and hide their bodies. Their skirts (always a preoccupation for Rego, which reaches back to long-standing dialogues with Velázquez) are voluminous, and hide the secrets of their sex, and their sexuality. One woman furtively places her hands beneath her skirt; another lies back in an ambiguous image which might reference childbirth or sexual pleasure, but which anticipates Rego’s devastating later images of women undergoing illegal terminations of their pregnancies.

Only one of the women, in the right panel, wears a pair of ballet shoes. Like the frequently side-lined male observer in Degas’ pastels—for example, the stretched-out men in The Rehearsal on Stage (circa 1874)—this distinctly masculine woman also observes the women around her. These women may, of course, also be multiple versions of ‘herself’ as Rego reminds us via their densely-presented movements, of the drawing processes behind Disney’s stop-start animation. Is this observer a trope for the ambiguities and pleasures as well as the pitfalls and dangers of the male gaze? Does she serve to destabilise too easy reductions of male power and female pleasure? Her feet seem oddly incongruous in their shield of pink satin, feet which are literally bound in comparison to the free and beautifully drawn bare feet of the other women.

To perform one must be observed. As we look with her at the women, who hover between the human and the animal, yet bear so little resemblance to the oddly phallic, long-necked Disney ostriches, we become immediately involved in the complexities of the gaze as Rego’s subtle explorations of binaries, hierarchies of power and a history of visual representation of the female body are worked through. Revelling in the multiple ironies that performances entail, Rego’s dancing ostriches look across the panels to each other, occasionally risking a glance towards us the viewer.

Rego’s art is always an art of story. The verbal games that take place in relation to an image prompt and tease rather than offering us a final answer. The ostrich, traditionally known for putting its head in the sand to avoid a problem or a predator, is not here hiding its gaze. Instead, the women share knowledge and experience, even if it is shared furtively. These are women acquainted with the dangers of the categories and roles into which they might be placed. But they are also, in their figuration, given the literal weight and power to position themselves as they portray a range of unsettled and unsettling selfhoods.

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