Paula Rego: Oratorio, Marlborough Fine Art, London

Nightmare visions are a revelation

Paula Rego makes many of the paintings in this show from a mixture of pastel, conté crayon and charcoal, one medium enhancing the effect of the other. The outcome is a series of new works that look like a sequence of bold, vivid friezes on the nursery wall h interlocking themes snatched from the dark, timeless depths of folk tale – flat, glowing panels of rich, contrasting colours, both restrained, and given strong emotional definition, by black outlining. These are narrative paintings, and the stories they tell are gruesome and chilling in the extreme, but because of the way in which they present themselves – the rough and tumble of each of these crowded scenes, animals, dolls, lumpish adults, bustling, boisterous children, masked ghouls and proto-children all crowded together – that fact is not immediately evident. We are lulled into a kind of premature delight by the way they are painted. Yet we should not be delighting in them – except, of course, for the reason of their painterliness.

Yes, these are terrible scenes and they speak, time and again, of the ritual humiliation of the female. The female is she who suffers in Rego's work, she who is preyed upon, victimised and probed by children, harpies, slavering, yawning-jawed dogs and bloated, swollen-faced kidults. The older women generally have a look of weary resignation about them, as if they are exhausted almost beyond the limits of their exhaustion, as if they are almost serenely beautiful in their utter spentness. There is a worn and taxed beauty in these faces – it is not that smooth and sophisticated kind of drawing-room ideal of beauty to which so many painters, male and female, have so often accustomed us. This is a much harsher world altogether. There is nothing soft or winningly feminine about Rego's women. These faces often have the look of strong, square peasant faces, pitilessly accustomed to the hardest of life's hard knocks. These are scenes of brutal rape, of female circumcision, and they are played out in an almost a matter-of-fact way, as if this terrible, unstoppable circus of brutish goings is on the very warp and weft of life in rooms like this when lots of people and dream-like, nightmarish approximations of people gather together. These rooms are too crowded to be comfortable. There is such a jumble of ritual going on here that it is almost a laboratory.

This woman who is suffering circumcision is being overseen by a figure with boggling eyes. He is half a mannequin and half a slick, nightclub Nazi. The terrible banality of rape is transformed – perhaps transfigured would be a better word – into a kind of grotesque, enforced public entertainment. In a monstrous mock-pietà called Lamentation, a huge, lumpishly oppressive Christ-substitute has fallen from a ladder, and now he lies, legs fully booted, across the knees of a barefoot, bewildered child/woman whose expression suggests that she will never be shot of him. What is horrible is quite clinically so – a nurse binds a woman h twine h great deliberation.

The merry-go-round never stops clanking and turning. The tune it plays, over and over, grates terribly on the ear. It is also unstoppable.

To 20 August (020 7629 5161)

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