‘Anatomy of a Masterpiece’ – ‘The Policeman’s Daughter’

In the fifth of his series of six articles, our art critic, Malcolm Storer, examines and dissects some of the supreme masterpieces of Western Art, scrutinising the artists who made them, and why, when and where they were created.    

‘The Policeman’s Daughter’

by

Paula Rego

A seemingly innocent image of a young woman dutifully polishing her father’s boot. But beneath this cosy household scene lies a maelstrom of dysfunctional relationships, repressed freedom and political rage.

Paula Rego Paula Rego

And no one portrays these complex themes better than Portuguese artist, Paula Rego.

Born in Lisbon in 1935, she grew up under the jackboot of fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, who seized power in 1926 after a military coup.

Painting

Whilst her home life remained secure, the repressive regime was a constant threat in the background, generating a febrile anxiety in the young Rego. So much so, from childhood onwards she used art as a means of escape and to make sense of the world.

In 1952, she left Portugal and enrolled in The Slade School of Fine Art in London. It was here she met and fell in love with fellow student, English artist Victor Willing, who she married in 1959.

After graduating from The Slade, she enrolled at the Euston Road school of drawing, garnering praise from visiting tutor L.S. Lowry.

Her early paintings were influenced by the Surrealists — Joan Miro in particular– with their biomorphic shapes and Disneyesque figures floating in some otherworldly universe.

Later in life her style hardened into a ferocious Expressionism as she took aim at Portugal’s political establishment; its treatment of women provoking her rapier-like brush to produce a series of landmark works.

The most famous is her ‘Abortion Series’, a group of shockingly graphic canvases painted between 1997 – 98 after a public referendum to legalise abortion failed to attract enough votes.

They show traumatised women sitting on plastic buckets or lying forlornly on beds, hope drained from their faces.

The paintings had such an effect on the Portuguese people they became a major factor in deciding the outcome of the 2007 referendum, which finally led to the legalisation of abortion.

To me, the one painting that sums of Rego’s genius for macabre storytelling is her 1987 work, ‘The Policeman’s Daughter.’

With her arm thrust deep inside her father’s boot; the hint of a sneer on her young face, she reluctantly twists her body away from the freedom of the outside world towards the claustrophobic interior that is the family home.

Her white dress, symbolising virginal innocence, juxtaposes brilliantly with the sinful black boot of the military police.

As if to emphasise the hopelessness of her situation; a cat — normally a creature of independence and freewill — blindly scratches at the wall, unable to see the open window that lies within reach.

Like most nations ground down by dictatorships, it’s the overriding sense of simmering anger, isolation and helplessness that prevails.

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