Essay | Lying Down with Paula Rego by Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou

0
420
Love, Paula Rego, 1995 © Paula Rego

Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou


Lying Down with Paula Rego

I do not assume the position she takes and still, she reaches into me. Seated on a wooden bench, hunched over and holding my breath, I am watching a woman in the throes of loss – or gain. To a passer-by I would appear unmoved, my feet rooted to the floor, the floor resisting any other force but my gravity. I could be moored to this bench; I could be left here, rudderless and heavy, weighed down though freightless, tethered and willing to be so. But I am not unmoved and this tension, rather than clinging to my body, cleaves it, cuts it away from what has reached me inside – and it is that I cling on to, it is that I abide.

Love (1995) by Paula Rego depicts a woman reclining against – or rather into – a backdrop of crimson. Not quite blanket or bed, sofa or room, the background is at once material site and metaphysical reality: drapes and folds suggest the provisionally staged space of a studio while also teasing the possibility that we are seeing so much more than this; we are gazing into the very depth, shade and state of this woman’s heart, of our hearts, when left alone to feel.

And yet Rego’s drawing is not sentimentally rendered. Sitting here, seemingly strange, an impassive stone turned in on itself, I recognise the coordinates of desire, the lineaments of loss, lust, longing – of love. We walk past an image, pause, hover behind the shoulders of strangers, get as physically close as barriers and security guards will permit, all the while appearing emotionally distant, unavailable, closed off, epidermally dull and insensible. Our physical proximity to art is not always tantamount to our emotional or intellectual response. Rego’s drawings may do all the emotions for us – and what richly embodied and boldly fleshed out feelings she presents – but look closely at your fellow visitor and the quiver of a lip reveals astonishment, the widening of the eyes shock, the slackening of the jaw acknowledgement – not so much of what is on the page or canvas, but what both point to and open up within us; what art reveals to be already there inside. Anchored to the bench, appearing wearied and tired and just as wooden as the seat beneath me, this intimacy between the body of Rego’s work and my own, between the unbounded feeling framed in Love and the bounded emotions awakening within me, is complete.

*

My gaze is directly on Love, on the woman’s gently folded hands across her chest, on her legs, solid though relaxed, on her tousled head of hair. Her gaze is averted, denied us, denied me, as open as her slightly smiling mouth – a flash of teeth, the flush of thought, the triangle of flesh Rego taunts us with above the woman’s waist. This subtle erotics of visibility, availability, the play of denial and access, is held by the woman’s averted gaze; she is as distant as we physically are, but present and one with the felt experience embodied by the whole drawing. With Love, Rego not only captures that paradox exhibited by nudes – though her woman is clothed – of what is revealed and concealed to the viewer, but re-enacts the erotic nature of viewing art, of undoing the image, of being undone by the sign. In this asymmetrical line of vision – my direct gaze indirectly directed back at me through the woman’s averted one – a triangular dance of play, of touch, of thought, of feeling, is formed. Though our eyes never meet, our visions cross; our journeys through space and time diachronic, synchronically we become in this enveloping emotional exchange.

*

If I was to unmoor myself from this bench, sprawl along its length, hair spooling at one foot, mud encrusted boots at the other, what would you say? If I was to clutch my heart, bare my waist, look a thousand reveries but whisper none, what would you do? Disgust, fear, loathing, embarrassment might attend your response. Stony composure – the composite kind where dramatic flailing is averted (another aversion) and all limbs, belongings, words, ideas are drawn back into the body, diamond-like at best – is required when entering the space of a gallery. Whitewashed walls command silence, respect, a dignified disposition. Keep excitement to yourself, revere the work, the hanging, the curated crispness and choreography of it all. And never laugh – even if it is laughter-inducing satire. Our woman, our Love, defies these rules for us; for her, they are suspended. She performs our desire, our yearned for social transgressions, our bodily discord always kept achingly under wraps, here to be unwrapped, like Rego’s figure, the sweet centre unveiled, unfurled in reds deeper than your own cloyed heart. That is, the distance of Love is its trick of proximity, complicity, intimacy. I’m drawn into the drawing, I am in the drawing, I draw the drawing, I am the drawing and still I sit, another static figure planted on the edge of a seat, looking anything but the picture of love.

*

Either side of Love hang notable works from Rego’s oeuvre. The famous Dog Woman (1994) crouching on all fours with her obnoxiously large knee obtruding outwards, thrusted into our line of vision. Little Moth (1994), her delicate arms and clasped hands efficaciously held up in excitement – or alarm? Love, nestled between them, is ignorant of these small indignities taking place to the left and right of her. An initial glance at them all, clustered together, barely in correspondence though created only a few years apart in Rego’s signature pastels, and Love appears the least obtrusive presence: she is reassuringly and soothingly separate, deeply enmeshed in her own plush red world. Both Dog Woman and Moth, however, betray awareness of an unseen presence, out of sight though palpably, threateningly felt to the right side of each drawing. Our eyes take in all three, but Love espies only what she wants to see, inviting us in at an oblique angle.

Dog Woman rears up, her whole body contorted by a guttural growl snarling upwards across abject limbs and hunched shoulders, a bark escaping from her mouth. A bark and a growl ready to stop you in your tracks.

Moth withdraws into her body, into the nook of a chair, her short legs neatly folded over its arm, the soft pink of a silk ribbon tightly wound around her waist as if she was un petit cadeau – another image to untie or tie up?

A bark and a growl ready to stop you in your tracks; a slip of silk pinioned to a tree. A base-line snarl leashed by no man; a wingless flutter caught unawares.

And yet Love, bounded and boundless, finite and infinite, looks to no one. The single, most recognisable force is that which exists within her; any Other who may have prompted such feelings is out of sight, even out of mind. There is a reclamation of feeling and purpose in Love that goes beyond the possible presence or thing that triggers it. Dog Woman has a master to kick against, Moth to cower under; but Love is abundantly her own, at once lost and found to her feelings, and it is this that commands my attention.

*

I’m lying down with Paula, sprawled out across my bed like one of her women, away from prying eyes. Catalogues, monographs and guidebooks from her innumerable exhibitions are open at different pages, different bodies looking, unfurling, falling out. There is Paula, I say, seated by her papier mâché puppets, witchy grin and panda eyed as always. There is Paula, I whisper, a young woman, chic bob, sixties monochrome dress, standing proudly in front of an early painting. There is Paula, I gasp, a tiny child, each hand in the capable ones of her grandparents, those tiny hands which would eventually carry so much. But this is not Paula, I say, turning those pages, shutting those books. My Paula, the Paula I lie down with at night, the Paula who makes me shriek with laughter until my chest shakes and my limbs rattle with the absurdity of it all; the Paula who wakes me up, shakes me up, stirs my stale sense of femininity and the capacity of my constructed womanhood – my Paula is not in those black and white photographs or in the carefully arranged archive, but in the crouched and subtly conspiring forms of her women, who crowd the pages of my imagination at night. Dog Woman, whose dogged position she occupied on the cold hard floor of her studio, before her model assumed the same and Paula began the drawing herself. Moth, whose performed and weaponised passivity – will she spring out of her chair and tie the master up instead? – would reappear in subsequent prints and drawings, seemingly vulnerable in a trousseau of other spaces and places, ever watchful of a predatory presence to the side. And Love, of course, Love: she is there, one with the pulsing redness of feeling, of what is felt, of what it means to feel and feel oneself in the depth of the felt world.

I take the postcard of Love that the gallery assistant put in a thin paper bag – a svelte hand slipped into a silk glove. I couldn’t believe my luck to find Love as one of the few postcards on offer – I had The Dance, The Policeman’s Daughter, but not this, the one drawing simultaneously to arrest and resist my admiring gaze. I was too greedy walking up to the assistant, bypassing books I’d usually want to buy, almost bumping into other visitors and stands, placing Love – oh, for a brief moment – into the hand of another, but soon into mine, into my bag, into my room forever. I’m turning the postcard over and over again, hoping for another sign of Paula, something unknown, to slip out from its esoteric redness. I marvel at how what engulfed me in the gallery almost fits into my palm, snugly, a warm paper body of a thing, beating, breathing, to its own rhythm, its own time. I put Love next to her catalogued iteration, the printed shades of that crimson backdrop a mock to the original. Several Loves never can take the place of the first one, the initial tremor that triggered a volcanic outpour of feelings inside me on that bench. Several Loves, nevertheless, makes me feel crazy rich, a fleshy god drunk on wine-dark notions and emotions, wanting to possess, as I did in the gallery, in the shop, on the tube ride home, the pastel drawing hanging on those too white walls. Closing the catalogue, I hold Love up to the light, a crass gesture I realise as soon as I do, since she’s not for forensic examination – no love would or should bear it; she’s not for the hollow eye and garish light of reason. As I suspect, she remains quiet, her secrets clutched to her heart, her eyes averted away still. Look with your heart, the palms of your eyes, the eyes of your fingers, the stomach of your thought, the feeling that twists and turns then flutters and flies in your gut, says Paula. Look to Love under the howling light of the moon.

*

That night, wrapped in blankets of red, feet dangled over the sides of the bed, hands clasped around my chest, I dream of Paula. Surrounded by past drawings, women baring teeth on all fours, taunting dogs in other paintings, dancing alone by a silent moon-lit shore, Paula begins Love. Her back is rigid, faultlessly upright, as if anticipating a ballet master flicking a switch; her face is all manner of concentration, but her eyes dart, quickly, fleetingly, pirouetting between the model on the floor and the paper stretched on the aluminium frame. The transmission from body to hand to pastel to paper is rapid, another whiplashing, cheek-grazing, daring pirouette. Then Paula stops to wipe her hands on her overalls, reds meeting blues and blacks and the faded stains of colour from other works. She drinks some tea, talks to her model, who adjusts the place of her left foot, and they begin again, this dance, this labour of love. Soon the reds blacken at the corners, crease where material meets matter, and matter dissolves into ethereal sighs and moans. Love is becoming apparent, a riper, fuller thing than the body from which it was inspired by, because it is no model – not even Lila Nunes, Paula’s trusty assistant and muse of this time – but it is the artist, it is the viewer, it is whoever dares to behold, to see, to be in, love. Seemingly immersed in this act, Paula turns abruptly, whipping around to stare directly at me, a big grin spreading across her face, a mischievous grin, a wicked smile flashing from ear-to-ear, and she winks. Putting down the pastel, but still looking at me, she points to the drawing, to the newly-completed Love, to the body of a woman who suddenly looks like me, to the hands tightly clasped to her chest, my chest, in the throes of loss or gain. Paula points, Paula stares, teeth glinting moonlight and she laughs.

*

I am back in the gallery to see Paula with O, and we, like Rego’s women, are pushing the boundaries of everything. At first we walk in slightly cowed by the curatorial formality of it all, whispering between ourselves, almost signing our enthusiasm, respecting the distance demanded by the four white walls. Then O starts to giggle – just a little, then uncontrollably, and I catch the laughing bug too. Swapping the oppressive walls for the ambitious canvases that hang from them, O and I feel free to talk, laugh, sit on the floor, roll the hell around if we should wish. O’s laughter is triggered by one of Paula’s early surreal panoramas where a rabbit is smacking a baby, a monkey is astride a caterpillar-like figure with a fez, and several diminutive and indescribable animals are massaging an Egyptian sphinx. O is, by now, cackling with laughter; together we are bent over, clutching our sides, in rapturous awe of Rego’s raucous menagerie of an imagination, discordantly not zoologically on display. I can see O’s intricate and marvellous imagination ticking, set off by Paula’s equally rare one. We laugh again at a giant lobster ravishing a pale carp, while hybrid figures fall from the sky, helter-skelter, windmill bodies, hurled violently by god knows who, and as we laugh, I hear a distant cackle, catch the sense of an invisible grin, panda-eyed and witchy, guiding us on, urging us forward. We pass rebellious daughters, boisterous girls, murderous maids, and love them for it. A barn with a weeping watermelon beneath a hayloft and a bare-bottomed woman being sadistically whipped sends us into hysterics again, while Snow White romps on the opposite side of the wall, working it to her own hi-ho. We pass engravings and etchings and paintings and more pastels, and O and I are alternately speechless and garrulous at the fantasies and perversities playing out, until I am in a room I recognise, and O is a little ahead of me, in the subsequent gallery, and I instinctively stop before a drawing I recognise. A distant cackle returns to my ears; in my mind’s eye a single finger points to a crimson backdrop, stroking the red layers and curved out form. Standing in front of Love, for a second time, I am no less moved, despite my preceding irreverent behaviour. This time I do not sit, but place my head at one end of the bench and dangle my feet off the other, looking all the while at the drawing. Clutching my hands to my chest, breathing in, then breathing out, to a different rhythm, a different time, to the rich red emotion of it all, I look at Love and smile, just like Paula would.

Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is a writer and the founding editor-in-chief of Lucy Writers. She edits all sections, in particular the Arts editorial of the platform. She completed her BA in English Literature at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and has an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies from King’s College, London, and also holds a foundation diploma in fine art from Camberwell College of Arts. She is currently studying for a PhD in English Literature at UCL and teaches undergraduate students in the department. Hannah regularly writes for online magazines, journals and blogs, such as The London Magazine, Club des Femmes, London Student, The Cusp, The Modernist Review, Women: A Cultural Review, The London Journal, BSECS Criticks, and the Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies. She was shortlisted and came second in the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme Student Journalist of the Year Award 2018 (for criticism). She is currently working on a creative non-fiction work on women artists and drawing, which will incorporate her drawings. Follow her on Twitter @hhgsparkles and Instagram @hannahhg25

For more from this series of essays by Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou, read Dancing with Sophie Taeuber-Arp.


To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.