The secret life of Snow White

Cute they are not. Paula Rego has reinvented a cast of Disney characters with a dark side. Iain Gale watched her at work
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The Independent Culture
It's not quite Degas. The prima ballerina is almost past it. Too old to pirouette, too young to die, she can only lie across a chair in impotent mockery of a dance step. In this large pastel, Paula Rego presents a poignant investigation of personal tragedy. It takes time to realise why it seems so familiar. Gradually, however, childhood memories come to mind of a cartoon in which a group of ostriches in similar poses gawkily strut their stuff to the strains of Tchaikovsky. Walt Disney's Fantasia is filled with such deft anthropomorphic pastiche and it is hardly surprising that, together with Snow White and Pinocchio, the film has inspired the latest development in Rego's work.

Rego has turned Disney inside out. In Walt's world, as in the fables of La Fontaine and Aesop, animals take on human attitudes. It is largely thanks to Disney that we presume that mice and ducks will talk, that elephants will fly. Rego, on the other hand, has either cut out such sentimentality altogether, or reversed the anthropomorphic process - allowing humans to imitate the animals.

It is a logical follow-up to her successful "Nursery Rhymes" series of 1989, which explored the grim reality behind well-known childhood catechisms. For some these were triumphs of honesty, for others destructive subversions of innocence. Rego insists, however, that in her new works she is not, for better or worse, subverting Disney, but acknowledging a hero. "These are a homage to Disney. I'm not trying to 'deconstruct' the films. How could I? I love them." With an affectionate intimacy for her own storyline, Rego guides me through her "ostrich pictures". Her narrative is not specifically filmic, her scenes more posed photographs than film stills. Working large scale in pastels, she has captured the intense physicality of each episode. "I wanted to do grotesques but not caricatures. They've been through a lot, these creatures. My ostriches are like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. They tell a story. They're not quite up to it, but they're putting on a brave show. Disney actually had a woman pose with feathers pinned on her. I thought I'd switch the thing round.

"They are doing different things. Some are pretending to be the prow of a boat. One wants to go to the bathroom. Another is waking up and expects a kiss, but she was only dreaming. Another wants a hug and this one's trying to fly. All these women are trapped - as ballet dancers are within routine. In my case, though, it's because they've reached the part of life when they just can't do very much."

Snow White, of course, is a somewhat different story: the tale of a pretty young girl and her wicked stepmother. Rego tells it in a series of five paintings, closely related to the 1940 movie (the video of which is on her studio floor, alongside a surreal collection of props including Snow White's dress and the prince's crown). Having set up the tale in the diptych she calls Cast of Characters (see below), Rego explores its individual aspects.

Here is Snow White as a princess, sitting in the castle, toying with her father's hunting trophy of a stag's head. In the background lurks her stepmother. "Her father's abandoned her," Rego explains. "He's married this horrible woman who's very jealous. For the time being, though, the girl's utterly spoilt. It's also got to do with the head she's holding. The horns imply that her father's a cuckold." If you can't remember this scene from the movie, don't be surprised. Rego's pictures do not always stick to Disney's script. Another painting you certainly won't recognise is one that Rego calls "very naughty". "It was the most unpleasant thing I could think of doing about mothers and daughters." In the scene, Snow White is being helped out of her snow-white cotton knickers by her stepmother. "It's very tense," says Rego.

Ultimately, tension gives way to infanticide in the fourth picture as Snow White falls from her chair, choking on a poisoned apple. In her fall, our heroine pulls at the hem of her dress. "She's covering up her bottom," says Rego. "She doesn't want her knickers to show. Because of her upbringing she still has modesty - even in her death throes." Rego has no doubt that "as a stepdaughter Snow White is very unpleasant". She's a conceited little girl who knows that her youth and beauty are things her stepmother can never regain. Rego has discarded Disney's sentimental props in order to emphasise the psychological conflict between two generations of women. "Snow White is pitched at a certain age," she says. "It's sexy, for young girls." For Rego it proclaims Disney as a brilliant, closet Surrealist. "In all these films he has uncovered something very dark. I mean, what other animator would have thought of getting Dali to work for him? Disney was a genius."

n Paula Rego's Disney pictures are included in 'Spellbound' at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0171-928 3144) 22 Feb-5 May, alongside other film- inspired works by Damien Hirst, Eduardo Paolozzi and others

Fresh faced and rosy cheeked, Snow White is the picture of childhood innocence. Or is she?

Paula Rego on her Cast of Characters:

This film means a lot to young girls. It's romantic. I haven't changed the essence of the story. I've just told it differently from the film. Up in the left-hand corner you can see the prince who comes to her rescue. Look. He's cuddling a fox. That's his first wife with him. I've painted her as a ferret wearing a wedding dress. There's Snow White on her hands and knees, washing the floor when she's cleaning the house for the seven dwarves.

I've painted the wicked stepmother several times in the same canvas. There she is being a bird, a tree, a bug. There's no real nature at all in here. It's not like in the film where the branches of the trees turn into hands that try to grab Snow White and the forest animals frighten her. Here all that is done by the stepmother. I've just used people, because that's what the story is about. The whole thing is concerned with the psychological struggle between Snow White and her wicked stepmother.

When you see Snow White as a young girl, it's like discovering a new world. It's the first time you realise there's such a thing as romantic love. You get very excited about it - about all the songs in the movie - get really involved, very stirred by it all. It's very erotic for a young girl. Disney targets it specifically at girls just on the brink of self-discovery. Older women just don't get it.