A schoolgirl with a grayish pleated skirt lifted from her thighs stares defiantly from her bucket perch, clutching her stomach in pain from a recent abortion. It is just one of the complex, and sometimes haunting, images displayed in the new Yale Center for British Art exhibit titled “Paula Rego: Celestina’s House,” scheduled to open to the public today.
“Celestina’s House” is the first major exhibition of Rego’s artwork to be held in the United States. The show features a previously unreleased series of pastels and lithographs, finished just a few weeks ago, on the subject of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and “The Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys. It includes approximately 90 of Rego’s recent works, most of which are being shown for the first time outside of Britain.
The uniformed schoolgirl is one of a series of figures in Rego’s abortion pieces, which were drawn in response to Portugal’s referendum on the legalization of abortion. Rego, who was born in Portugal and now resides in London, said the pieces were meant to bring to light the secrecy and discomfort women who have illegal abortions in Portugal often experience.
“None of them are victims, and they have made the decision and taken control of things,” Rego said about the women in the abortion series.
The series is just one example of the controversial nature of much of Rego’s work, which is largely focused on major issues many women may confront.
“[Ideas for my work] come from books, they come from things that happen in life, they come from things in books that turn into things that happen in life,” Rego said.
The previously unreleased works exemplify this narrative style. They draw on the dialogue between victimization and strength that can be seen in the faces of many of Rego’s characters, such as Bertha from “The Wide Sargasso Sea.”
“Bertha and Jane Eyre are almost like two sides of the same coin,” Rego said. “I prefer Jane, because she’s not a victim.”
But Rego does not always plan the subject of her art. In the end, she said, it is the drawing process that brings out the narrative richness and subtlety for which her work is known.
“First of all it is like this: piece of paper and pencil and you find an image in your head, behind your ear somewhere,” Rego said in a written statement. “You put it down and something suggests something else and then, afterward, when you go over it with the pen and ink you change it again. So there is constant change, adjustment and so on — The drawing is where the story and the picture develop, really.”
Despite the adult subject matter addressed in the exhibit, Gillian Forrester, the associate curator of prints and drawings for the British Art Center, said she hopes to attract a diverse audience for the show and plans on showing it to high school students as part of the museum’s educational program.
“Her work’s figurative, it’s narrative, it’s quite unusual,” Forrester said.
She said figurative work like that exhibited in “Celestina’s House,” especially in pastel, is unusual in recent British art.
“The inclusion of the preliminary drawings for the major works will provide a unique insight into the way Paula Rego allows her images to evolve, and I believe visitors to the exhibition will benefit greatly by the opportunity to observe her complex and fascinating working processes, which are typically very private,” Forrester said in a written statement.
The British Art Center credits the Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum in Kendal, England, for putting together the exhibit, which is supported by Marlborough Fine Art Ltd. of London and the British Council.