'She is a caricaturist in the broadest sense, a master of the fun and games, the humorous absurdity and black mischief of the endlessly enthralling human comedy, as exemplified by the many-layered masterpiece Looking Back'
(John McEwen, 2011).
Looking Back is a deeply human and poignant masterpiece by the Portugese-born painter, Paula Rego. Created in 1987, it embodies the artist's raw emotions at a time of personal tragedy when her beloved husband, the esteemed British artist Victor Willing was gravely ill. Willing had been Rego's mainstay, her mentor and confident and his precipitous deterioration in health prompted her to give up painting entirely for a period. In Looking Back, the apotheosis of her celebrated Girl and Dog series, Rego resumed her practice as a process of personal catharsis, coming to terms with the loss of a man who had meant so much to her. In these final stages of Willing's life, Rego worked feverishly painting some of the 'largest and most ambitious pictures of her life' in her new mode including, Looking Back, The Family (1988) and The Departure (1988) (M. Livingstone, Paula Rego, Madrid 2007, p. 50). In a bittersweet tribute to her husband, Rego was honoured with a major retrospective of her work at the Serpentine Gallery in 1988, following his death. It acted as a platform for her paintings, awarding her international acclaim and recognition. 'My paintings are stories' (Paula Rego quoted in Paula Rego, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 1988, p. 8) she once said, and in Looking Back it is the passage of her own life that Rego depicts. She projects the passing of time through the conduits of her characters, three generations of women congregated around a draped day bed. The reposing girl is covered luxuriously in a rich fur throw, whilst the second girl dances, legs apart and thighs exposed in an act of apparent sexual provocation. The small child, huddles beneath her older companions, her scarlet dress cloaked in shadows. Hidden behind her plump frame sits a small inanimate, stuffed dog, excluded from the picture of female revelry. It is an ambiguous tale that projects some of Rego's own unique brand of black humour, coming to terms with the heartbreak of her own situation. As Victor Willing explained in a tender, posthumous tribute to his wife's paintings: 'a lifetime of courting disaster turned around at the last moment - snatching chestnuts from the fire - produces a note of hilarious triumph. It defies the pain' (Victor Willing, 'Inevitable Prohibitions', Paula Rego, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 1988, p. 8).
'She killed the dog! That's right. She skinned the dog and wrapped its skin around her. That's it. This comes after the pictures I did about feeding a sick dog. She was being very kind to the dog, feeding him medicine so she had to hold his face open and it hurt him. She wasn't kind to him because she couldn't be - shoving medicine down his throat. And after she'd done all that, about which there are many pictures, she then skinned the dog and wrapped her friend in it and got into bed with her. The one standing killed the dog. They're both going to go to 'bed', it's a table, under the dog's skin. The little girl may make a coat out of the fur when she grows up. But probably not. She doesn't look that sort of child. She'll probably ask someone to do it for her. She's learning. She's learning to punish. The standing woman is Looking Back, she's looking over here, and smiling. Naughty, you see. And the one on the bed is quite satisfied with what she's done. She didn't kill the dog but she helped skin it. They're all very pleased at what they've done to the dog. He was for punishing. It's a huge pelt, like a lion! They've done the dog in. After all that kindness and getting him to live and everything they've then killed him.'
(Paula Rego on Looking Back).
Formally, Looking Back (1987) marks a radical departure for Rego, introducing the concepts of volume and chiaroscuro for the first time. This was the year that Willing's illness became terminal and the effect on Rego was manifest. As she herself described: this was when 'the shadows came in' (Paula Rego quoted in M. Livingstone, Paula Rego, Madrid 2007, p. 190), with the emotional darkness of Willing's condition placing a heavy burden on the artist's spirit. Rather than continuing to depict narrative in a flat, graphic and almost comic manner, Rego felt the need to confront the reality of her increasingly desperate situation. By painting her characters in their full dimensions and casting shadows on their forms she saw it as a means of coming to terms with life: 'things stop looking real after a bit. When you are little and you do scrawling drawings and you think it is your mother, it does look to you like your mother. But after a bit you realise that it's not. And it's the same [now with Vic]' (Ibid.).
The use of anthropomorphic or personified animals became an important theme for Rego, nowehere more so than in Looking Back (1987). As with the entire Girl and Dog series, Rego here alludes to her relationship with her husband. Having been in awe of him for the whole of their married life, Rego found his increasing dependency through the debilitations of his devastating disease, difficult to embrace. The dog in the group of pictures is most likely Willing, situated in various postures wholly reliant on a young girl, Paula Rego, to feed him, nurture him and caress him as in Untitled (Girl and Dog) (1986). The young girl holds the dog's muzzle in her hands, asserting her pastoral authority. The scenes appear benign at first, but later the dog appears to have fled the growing antipathy of the young girl as seen in The Little Murdress (1987). In casting the dependent as a dog and the active protagonist as a human girl, Rego painfully yet satirically meditates on the married couple's reversal of roles, honestly revealing the deep, shaming and unspoken frustrations of both nurse and invalid.
In Looking Back (1987) Rego goes further, removing the dog entirely from the domestic scene except for a tiny stuffed toy partially obscured and neglected under the bed. The three women appear happily corralled together, with one lying on an empty nurse's bed tucked under a fur throw, the other provocatively dancing and raising her skirt whilst a young girl crouches in front, casting a furtive backwards glance over her shoulder. The psychological dimensions of this scene defy what would otherwise appear to be a contented meeting between family. In fact, being the final painting of the Girl and Dog series, the absence of the dog suggests the death of the creature, importing a darker meaning to the women's light-hearted facial expressions.
The women assembled around a suspicious fur throw have captured the animal and dispensed with it; Rego emphatically explains, 'the women have killed the dog' (Ibid.). The little girl at the foot of the bed looks back knowingly; as John McEwen has described, the girl is 'subversion personifiedplotting, eavesdropping and seeking revenge at the feet of grown-ups' (Ibid.). In the elaboration of this character, Rego was resurrecting her own childhood as well as the mixed experiences of her marriage and parenthood. As she has explained: 'When you talk about childhood you come to realise that you're the same as you were', exercising the same emotional tools and leverage in your personal life (Paula Rego quoted in J. McEwen, Paula Rego, London 2006, p. 146). The two older women in Looking Back (1987) have an ambiguous relationship. The dancing girl clasps her crotch, perhaps rehearsing her own sexual power in a manner reminiscent of the earlier Girl Lifting up her Skirt with Dog (1986). In the painting, a young girl taunts a servile dog understood to be Rego's beleaguered husband, raising her dress to expose herself, offering him a sexual advance, forever unattainable. KA
John McEwen on Paula Rego's Looking Back
This famous Paula Rego picture was first shown at the Edward Totah Gallery in London in 1987. In every successful artist's career there is an exhibition that marks the turn in the tide and, for Paula Rego, this was it. Not that she was an unknown artist, far from it. She had represented Portugal, the country of her birth, at the prestigious Sao Paulo Bienal in 1969. She had shown regularly in Portugal and had two previous exhibitions at Edward Totah. But in this show she gave full and figuratively explicit rein to her love of subversive storytelling, much of which had previously been told through animal characters.
Many of the pictures in that exhibition featured the nursing of a sick and helpless dog. In Looking Back, the most intriguing and ambiguous of these new, boldly figurative, paintings, the only dog is a toy one. The picture features two grown-up young women and a little girl. One of the women lounges, using a draped table for a bed. Despite this unforgiving base she has an inward look of contentment, as if lost in pleasant reverie. She is covered by a fur blanket. The other woman hops beside the table while looking back, a wicked gleam in her eye. The mouths of all three characters have the faint suggestion of a smile. The little girl, who sits unheeded on the floor with the toy dog, gives a knowing, conspiratorial, look over her shoulder to the viewer.
What is going on? A great deal more than meets the eye; with a Paula Rego story we can be sure of that. As she has said: 'My favourite themes are power games and hierarchies. I always want to turn things on their heads, to upset the established order At the same time as loving the stories I want to undermine them, like wanting to hurt the person you love. Above all, though, I want to work with stories which emerge as I go along.'
So who better to reveal the secrets and implications of this iconic picture than the artist herself: 'She killed the dog! That's right. She skinned the dog and wrapped its skin around her. That's it. This comes after the pictures I did about feeding a sick dog. She was being very kind to the dog, feeding him medicine so she had to hold his face open and it hurt him. She wasn't kind to him because she couldn't be - shoving medicine down his throat. And after she'd done all that, about which there are many pictures, she then skinned the dog and wrapped her friend in it and got into bed with her. The one standing killed the dog. They're both going to go to "bed", it's a table, under the dog's skin. The little girl may make a coat out of the fur when she grows up. But probably not. She doesn't look that sort of child. She'll probably ask someone to do it for her. She's learning. She's learning to punish. The standing woman is Looking Back, she's looking over here, and smiling. Naughty, you see. And the one on the bed is quite satisfied with what she's done. She didn't kill the dog but she helped skin it. They're all very pleased at what they've done to the dog. He was for punishing. It's a huge pelt, like a lion! They've done the dog in. After all that kindness and getting him to live and everything they've then killed him.'
Paula Rego may have been born and brought up in Portugal but her credentials as an adult could hardly be more English. She received her art education at the Slade, married the English artist Victor Willing (1928-88), and describes herself as a 'Londoner'. Yet she is proud to admit that her sensibility and caustic humour remain irrepressibly Portuguese, she has said. This especially applies to her taste for subversive stories. 'The Portuguese are keenly aware of the fragility of hierarchies and the comedy which derives from their disruption,' wrote Victor Willing with reference to her work.
John McEwen is the author of Paula Rego (Phaidon) and Paula Rego, Behind the Scenes (Phaidon).