Paula Rego’s Dancing Ostriches: ‘Longing for things that are not gone’

Inspired by a scene in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia, Rego’s eight panels — two of which are offered in London on 13 October — seem to convey both the ache of nostalgia and an indomitable spirit of defiance

Paula Rego (1935-2022), Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, 1995. Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, in two parts. (i) 63⅝ x 60⅛ in (161.5 x 152.6 cm); (ii) 63 x 47½ in (160 x 120.5 cm). Sold for: £3,065,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

When Paula Rego was a child, her father owned the first private cinema in Lisbon. Sitting with her grandmother in the subterranean darkness, she thrilled to the world of Walt Disney, relishing the mystery, the enchantment and the combination of delight and fear the animator instilled in his storytelling.

No surprise then that in 1995, when the Hayward Gallery in London invited Rego to create an artwork for the exhibition Spellbound: Art and Film (a celebration of 100 years of cinema in Britain), the artist found inspiration in Disney’s brilliant 1940 folly, Fantasia.

Taking the film’s dancing ostrich sequence, in which a gaggle of coquettish birds perform Dance of the Hours from Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda, Rego offered up a feminist perspective, translating Disney’s witty anthropomorphism into a group of muscular women, gutsily limbering up across eight large panels.

Paula Rego working on Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney's 'Fantasia', 1995

Paula Rego in her studio working on the Dancing Ostriches series in 1995. The model, Lila Nunes, wears a tutu similar to the ones depicted in Disney’s Fantasia. Photo: © John Haynes. All rights reserved 2023 / Bridgeman Images. Artwork: © Dame Paula Rego, Bridgeman Images, 2023

A diptych from the series, formerly part of the Saatchi Collection, is to be offered in Christie’s 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 13 October 2023. According to specialist Claudia Schürch, the work ‘captures the fables, fantasies and frictions of the female experience’.

Born in Portugal in 1935, Rego grew up under António Salazar’s dictatorship. Her father, an electrical engineer, opposed the regime, and although they had a comfortable middle-class existence, the family lived in fear of reprisals from the brutal government. Rego channelled this anxiety into her art, saying later, ‘If you are frightened of something, the best thing is to draw it.’

As an adult, Rego retained this childlike perspective, painting strange dramas in which women, children and animals acted out disturbing scenarios. She discovered that the best way to portray violence was ‘like a cartoon, like Bugs Bunny’, using flat colours, hard outlines and abrupt shifts in scale, to tell stories about the oppression of women.

Paula Rego, Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, 1995, offered on 13 October 2023 at Christie's in London

Paula Rego (1935-2022), Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, 1995 (detail, left panel). Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, in two parts. (i) 63⅝ x 60⅛ in (161.5 x 152.6 cm); (ii) 63 x 47½ in (160 x 120.5 cm). Sold for £3,065,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Dancing Ostriches features Rego’s regular muse Lila Nunes in multiple positions, wearing a feathery black tutu similar to the ones in Fantasia. However, where Disney’s animators drew their characters from ‘a very tall, ostrich-like girl’, Rego deliberately chose Nunes, who is short with a physical heft.

The awkward poses and direct expressions of Rego’s dancers are curiously reminiscent of Edgar Degas’s pastel depictions of ballerinas backstage at the theatre. Like Rego, Degas strove to reveal something of the human beneath the costume. His use of pastel also set a precedent for Rego, who had, in the early 1990s, just begun to explore the medium, finding in its chalky application a middle ground between painting and drawing.

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, circa 1874. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, circa 1874. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

Rego once said she was a ‘poacher’ who liked to subvert the work of Old Masters in her pictures. When asked how she dared to approach such a thing, she answered: ‘You don’t approach it ever — you ease into it sideways.’ In Rego’s pastel panels, the women recall the strange cast of characters in Velázquez’s mysterious court painting of 1656, Las Meninas, echoing the oddly shaped bodies and unsettling atmosphere that pervades the scene.

When Dancing Ostriches was first exhibited, the critic John McEwen wondered if Rego’s decision to use the same model multiple times reflected the artist’s feelings about the ageing process, with Nunes as her alter ego.

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Rego, then aged 61, admitted that ‘the Ostriches couldn’t have been done if I hadn’t been the age I am. A younger woman wouldn’t know what it was like, longing for things that are not gone, because they’re inside one, but are inaccessible.’

With their stolid vigour and thighs bared for combat, Rego’s dancers are pragmatically aware that their youth and grace have left them, but defiant enough in their own imperfect forms to face a world unsure of what to do with them.

Explore Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Art auctions in London and Paris, throughout October 2023

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