An artist of the stature of Paula Rego demands a book of uncompromising quality and, in this impressive and beautiful volume, she has it. It’s tempting to say that all art books should be like this but quality, of course, comes at a cost. It is, however, a pleasure to be able to report that the money spent on production has not been wasted. Good quality original images have been sourced, the right paper chosen and proof correction (if such was necessary) given assiduous attention. I’ve seen similarly-priced books that managed to fall at one or more of those hurdles.
Rego’s images do not, for the most part, make for comfortable viewing. Confrontational and uncompromising, the subconscious will inevitably mutter, “a bit like Lucian Freud, then”, to which I’d add “and maybe some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs too”. Comparisons are dangerous things, but this provides an opportunity to emphasise the quality of compassion that Rego expresses. The medium of pastel, which she uses predominantly in her later work, allows for great subtlety. A small smudge here or there softens edges and mutes colours and it is by these subtle marks that she engages the viewer and enters the character, perhaps even the soul, of her subjects. Looking at a Paula Rego painting, you are not so much a viewer as a participant. The artist possesses great empathy and it is her consummate skill that she is able to transfer this to the onlooker.
She is also a great portrayer of character. There is a lithograph here, from 2002, of Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre that sums up not just his outward character (“dark, strong and stern” as Charlotte Brontë puts it), but also his inward enigma. Even his horse and dog manage to reflect the nature of the novel – Rego understands more than just human character.
This is an absolutely gorgeous book that chronicles Paula Rego’s life and work and illustrates over 300 of her paintings. The paper is heavy and has just the right surface to maintain the quality of the colours used. The binding is also up to supporting its considerable weight – another pitfall in this kind of book is a binding that falls apart under the sheer strain. In many ways, the production is a labour of love. Maybe Paula Rego engenders that.
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