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Art and politics in the work of Paula Rego.

Paula Rego's Map of Memory: National and Sexual Politics. Maria Manuel Lisboa. Ashgate. [pounds sterling]52.50. 218 pages. ISBN 0-7546-0720-8.

Is art a purely aesthetic phenomenon or does it contain hidden messages that can be linked to history? This is an ongoing debate in the art world but to Maria Manuel Lisboa, Senior Lecturer in Portuguese and Lusophone Literature at Cambridge University, the work of Paula Rego, a sixty-nine year old Portuguese artist who has lived in Great Britain since she was seventeen, encapsulates a period of history of her native Portugal and exposes the predicament of womenfolk and children. The political messages embedded in Rego's work is the main topic of Miss Lisboa's new book. Beginning with the introduction, the author quotes Paula Rego herself stating that a painting can contain history as well as colours and form.

This is a book that explores the boundaries between art, history and politics. In order to explain what has made her transgress into such dangerous territory, Maria Lisboa quotes a phrase by Alberto Caeiro, one of the four heteronyms of the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), one of the greatest in Portuguese literature: 'How difficult it is to be oneself and see nothing except what is visible'. Another source of inspiration for Maria Lisboa regarding the correct way in which to read Rego's work is the playwright, John Osborne, whose character, 'the patriot', exemplifies the politics of control which Paula Rego denounces in her paintings.

This book is a makeshift retrospective of Paula Rego and in it Maria Lisboa argues against two ingrained concepts. The first is the agenda of sexual politics which states that only man enters history because women do not do the kind of things that change life. The second is the notion that art cannot enter history for it is not fact but simply representation. The author uses the iconography of Paula Rego as evidence that women as well as art can transform history through a kind of creative destruction which they are able to perpetrate from their place within society. Illustrations of Rego's work are used to show how Rego has rebelled against the myths of beauty and innocence of women and children. As the author points out, Rego's women are a far cry from the inspirational muses and her children have little of the expected innocence. As if Rego's strong images were not enough, the evocative titles of her pieces reinforce the message she wanted to convey. This was to protest against the nationalist tyranny of Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal between 1932 and 1974.

Apart from the world fame that Rego already enjoys, the trickiest thing that Maria Lisboa had to face in writing this book on the effect of art in history was the fact that she is an expert in literature and not in art or history. However, when she argues that representation is to art what factual evidence is to history (and to science), Miss Lisboa proves that she has what it takes to enter the treacherous zone that lies between art and science, the 'two cultures', as once referred to by C. P. Snow. It is no coincidence that Fernando Pessoa, one of the Portuguese literary exponents that the author quotes, also penetrated the world of science many decades before.

A large number of Rego's paintings and collages are reproduced in this book, alongside with other artists' paintings used to contrast Rego's insistence on violence, sex and the other things that characterise everyday life. The illustrations in this book give the reader the option to make up his or her own mind about the political messages underlying Rego's paintings, although much more is reserved for those willing to accept this magnificent guided tour.
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Title Annotation:Paula Rego's Map of Memory: National and Sexual Politics
Author:Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:624
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