Arts: Lost the plot, lost her way

Paula Rego's strength is her storytelling. If that disappears, Tom Lubbock finds there's not much left to appreciate

Artists who have a show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery get a rare honour - their names appear on road signs. As you currently make the approach through SE21, you pass several of those RAC pointers - the sort that usually direct traffic to race meetings or pop festivals - bearing the words "Paula Rego". The effect is impressive. The gallery does this because it thinks no one knows where it is, but it always looks like huge coach parties are expected. Who knows? The name of Paula Rego might even draw them in.

I'm going to be rude about this show. However, it's worth recalling that just 10 years ago the Serpentine Gallery put on the Rego exhibition, launching her remarkable, late career. It was a startling breakthrough - the artist was already 50. What's more, the paintings that made such a stir, did so by utterly disregarding one of the most unbreakable protocols of modern art - the ban of the "anecdotal". They sold stories, and believed them.

True, a revival of figurative and narrative painting was widely touted in the 1980s. No one, though, was on the look-out for anything so whole- hearted. These scenes of family sex dramas took their tales seriously. It wasn't a question of interesting imagery - the viewer was asked to identify directly with Rego's characters, imagine their lives and feelings, as if they were people in a novel. That was how the pictures worked. Old-fashioned, and perhaps even naive, but it is evidently one of the ways pictures can work, and it was done with irresistible conviction.

Story is Rego's forte. Each new show has told a new one, presenting a new cast of characters. In the last few years, for instance, we've seen The Dog Woman and The Ostrich Women - both convincing developments of Rego's basic plot; an ambivalent one of female survival, cunning, secrets, resistance and revenge, all qualified by a deep emotional investment in subjection and victimhood. Her fables are always woman-centred, but I've never understood why she's called a feminist artist. Men may appear in her pictures as passive toys, but there is always an offstage context of invincible male power. Liberation and equality aren't her business at all.

The 16 large pastel compositions showing in Dulwich are based on a book, The Sin of Father Amaro, by Eca de Queiros - a 19th century Portuguese novel which, probably like many viewers, I haven't read. But then Rego's pictures are not literal illustrations. So it is hard to tell whether knowledge of the text would enrich or encumber them. Anyway, visitors get a printed precis of a woman seduced by her priest-confessor, and it's a world of passion, guilt, sacrifice and gender segregation - in keeping with Rego's world as we know it.

Except where are the stories? The Ambassador of Jesus is the only image in this set with one of Rego's distinctively charged actions. A priest sits facing a woman, one hand held out with holy fervour, clutching her head in benediction; the other, as if this too were part of a ritual, clutches her thigh. His eyes are raised to heaven; she doesn't look quite sure. It's not an original scenario, but it whets the appetite for more.

In vain. None of the other Father Amaro pictures have this level of drama. Rather, there's a great deal of sitting and lying around, with sometimes just a hint of some gesture or expression, but nothing telling, and a scattering of symbolic props - dead chicken, dolls, minature pig - to make up for the lack of action. This is artistically risky. Without the one thing Rego's very good at, you're likely to notice the various things she's not good at.

These pictures do little to disguise the way they're figure compositions set up in a studio - in fact, they deliberately stress this. They don't show period scenes, but models enacting period scenes, half-dressing up in costumes or in modern dress, and with modern furniture. There's the odd alienation effect, too: in The Company of Women, a scene from Amaro's childhood, he's played by the same man who plays him as an adult. I don't think this studio charade is such a great idea in itself. It can only further weaken narrative interest. Worse, it is exposing. Studio-bound life work is not Rego's forte, and the competition (to give it a name, Lucien Freud) is stiff.

Those striking images Rego was making 10 years ago - the girl polishing the father's boot, say - were, I guess, mainly from imagination. The figures were cartoony, but they had psychological vim. Later, she began to work from live models, probably to make things feel more grown up, less whimsical. And in the 1994 Dog Woman series, it was crucial. You needed to feel it was an actual woman living this dog's life - a made-up body wouldn't have done - and maybe just because a strange bodily life was the central subject of the story, Rego's drawing-in of those images was both physically and psychologically true.

But here, her anatomies are just like anyone's variably wonky life drawings. "Mistakes", as such, may not matter (though there are some eye-catchingly clumsy ones), but the general loss of force or particularity of gesture does, for that is her essential genius. It snaps in just occasionally - in the intently kneeling figure in a painting called The Rest of the Flight into Egypt. Elsewhere, you feel its absence keenly. For as straight depictions of flesh and bone, or arrangements of bodies and furniture, these images have very little in their favour.

No one ever went to a Rego picture for the rendering of textures and it's unfortunate that clothes and materials make so much of the going- on in these pictures, at least in terms of picture area filled, promising a sensuous drama of black silk, white lace, carpets and bedding that never materialises. In Looking Out, a woman gazes out of a window, the swirl of drapery around her hefty bottom being (as it ought to be) one of the main pictorial points. But - to put it mildly - to show this picture in a gallery which has Van Dycks in the room next door is optimistic. The colours are pretty dull, too.

To put it less mildly, about a third of these pictures simply shouldn't have been exhibited at all, and without Rego's good name, I can't imagine they would have been. The rest distantly remind you of what Rego has done so much more powerfully before. Something has gone very badly wrong here. I hope it is nothing more serious than a total lack of interest in the project in hand. But don't rush for a seat on the coach.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (0181-693 8000), until 26 July

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high