Paula Rego's psychologically charged and subversively suggestive pastel paintings present enigmatic narratives imbued with a disquieting tension. As a painter of 'stories', Rego openly draws from her experiences, relationships, films and fairytales to create grand scale compositions and complex figure arrangements that represent the phantasmagoric world of female experience. Executed in 1997, The Lesson appears to tap into the women's collusion in power structures. Combining the appearance of willing obedience with an underlying sense of quiet rebellion, the subject is an extension of Rego's constant exploration of themes surrounding 'power games and hierarchies', and what she has described as her desire to 'turn things on their heads, to upset the established order' (Rego cited in M. Jaggi, 'Secret Histories', The Guardian, Saturday July 17, 2004).
Rego's childhood seems to have had a profound impact on the nature and subject matter of much of her art. Born in Portugal during António de Oliveira Salazar's socially oppressive regime, Rego was brought up in an unusually liberal household. Her father, a staunch republican and democrat, opposed to the influence of the church, instilled in his daughter a strong sense of independence and a love of art and literature. As an only child, her imagination was shaped by narrative. Family members would all vie to recount vivid and often terrifying folk stories from memory or read illustrated books aloud, including Blanco y negro, a publication full of tales told through bold, graphic illustrations. This book features prominently in The Lesson; the giant green tome is set before the group of crouched 'students', providing a link into Rego's early learning experiences.
The presence of Blanco y negro in The Lesson suggests the possible influence of another early, and perhaps painful memory from her youth. In order to be accepted into an English secondary school at the age of ten, Rego received extra tuition at home from a tyrannical teacher, whom she loathed but was compelled to obey. “She was rough and cruel and she used to hit me', Rego recalled, 'I used to be literally sick from fear of her. She'd say: 'You can't draw. You'll never be able to draw.' But being a child I never told my mother, because that was how I thought it was meant to be.” (Rego cited in J. McEwen, Paula Rego, London, 2006, p. 36). Rego's art has always depended upon personal experience for its inspiration, and this experience of submission before the authority of someone in power appears to resurface in the impromptu classroom scene enacted in The Lesson. The five, uncomfortably crouched figures are not children however, they are grown women, in whom the characteristics of a schoolgirls are still clearly visible. The painting has a strangely unsettling atmosphere; the uniformity of the women's drab business suits are seemingly at odds with their awkward, childlike mannerisms, whilst their cramped arrangement and proximity to the ground emphasizes a sense of subservience. The almost identical characters, all Portuguese models that bear a close resemblance to Rego herself, convey a number of human attitudes and emotions, which together can be seen as facets of a single human being. The foremost figure, with her hands clasped as if in prayer, assumes the typical traits of an overly eager teacher's pet, whilst the others appear fidgety, bored or completely distracted, and yet they are all deferring to an absent or imaginary authority.
Rego's images play with the viewer's notion of innocence, acts of female submission and control. Her husband, the painter Vic Willing, more specifically defined her concerns as being, 'domination and rebellion, freedom and oppression, suffocation and escape' (Willing cited in ibid.). The figure to the left, tugging at her skirt hem further hints at these underlying concerns by bearing a close resemblance to the women in Rego's confrontational Untitled (Abortion) series of pastel works. This series, also begun in 1997, formed a response to the referendum in Portugal to legalise abortion, which was voted against after intense pressure from the church. Rego's distaste for such politics led her to depict solitary young girls undergoing illegal abortions in their bedrooms, often squatting over vessels such as the black bucket that here in this work is inverted to function as a stool. Despite touching on such controversial aspects of women's position in society, Rego's women are never represented as victims; they always retain a sense of power over their identities and their bodies. This can be seen in the women of The Lesson, who apparently struggle with conformity when confronted with authority.
Rego's narratives evolve from a process of drawing intuitively from her mind's eye, collaborating with models and reshaping her ideas on canvas. By combining elements of the observable world with the lingering memories imbedded in her imagination, and present circumstances, Rego establishes a dynamic process that allows the story to unfold as the painting develops. Though elements may emerge from deeply personal sources or recognisable influences, her characters and the situations in which they are placed, ultimately maintain a mysterious inscrutability that invites viewers to improvise a story for themselves.