Pastel on Paper
110 cm × 100 cm each panel
Abbott Hall Art Gallery, UK
Intensely Personal, Highly Political
Triptych uses strong colours and solid forms in a disturbing commentary on the subject of abortion.
It is at once both intensely personal and highly political. Three women undergo illegal terminations in simple rooms, furnished with beds, chairs, and buckets. One appears to be a schoolgirl. Another curls over in evident pain. There are no nurses or care staff. The brutality of the procedure is vividly evoked without recourse to gory imagery. There is nothing medically explicit in the pieces. Instead, the horror is captured in the loneliness of the women, their isolation, and expressions of grim determination. Their suffering is real and unromanticised.
Rego’s adoption of a Neo-Expressionist style signals her desire to create an emotional impact. Neo-Expressionism and its sister-traditions across Europe and the US contrasted with and reacted against the modern art of minimalism, the conceptual art of the 1970s, and the hyper-realism of preceding eras. Rejecting the notion of artist as dispassionate observer, Rego consciously incorporates and expresses her emotions through roughly worked materials, vivid colouring, and a figurative representation of her subjects.
Whilst sitting within Neo-Expressionist tradition, Rego has a distinctive style and choice of subjects. Her portraits, usually of women, are made intriguing by the positions her subjects adopt or the objects they hold and interact with. Her themes are a mix of socio-political commentary and Portuguese folklore, their meanings are often deliberately ambiguous.
Paula Rego (1935-present)
Born in Portugal in 1935 to creative parents, Rego had been captivated by the idea of painting when, aged 11, a Belgian artist was commissioned to produce a portrait of Rego and her mother. She was fascinated by the emergence of the finished portrait, but also describes thinking that she could do better.
Rego’s parents moved to the UK when she was a year old, leaving her in her grandmother’s care, During her formative years in Portugal, the young girl enjoyed a rich diet of traditional folk tales from her grandmother, inspiring her art. She moved to the UK at 16 years old, adopting it as her home but dividing her time between both countries. Her Portuguese heritage remains a strong measure of Rego's identity, and her art is often a process of discovery:
“Painting helps you find out about things through painting them. It is not a career.”
Art Beyond Exploration
Triptych belongs to a larger group of pictures on the same theme. Through the collection, Rego seeks more than exploration. She is calling on the people of her native Portugal to confront and address the dangers of restrictive abortion laws. Rego said of the work:
“it highlights the fear and pain and danger of an illegal abortion, which is what desperate women have always resorted to. It’s very wrong to criminalise women on top of everything else. Making abortions illegal is forcing women to the backstreet solution.”
Abortion had been legal in Portugal, but only on tightly constrained medical grounds. In 1988, official figures reported around 300 legal terminations. But campaign groups estimated that a further 20,000 terminations were performed illegally, and complications from these were the primary cause of maternal mortality. Thus, campaigners agitated for an extension of a woman’s right to choose.
In the 1980s Portugal was in a period of political instability that succeeded the overthrow of its authoritarian regime in the 1970s. Since the 1930s, Portugal had been ruled by a corporatist authoritarian government, mainly under the leadership of António de Oliveira Salazar. Salazar claimed to disapprove of Fascism, but nonetheless deployed state censorship, a sinister secret police force, and ruthless oppression against those who opposed him.
Salazar was replaced as Prime Minister in 1968, but the regime remained intact until it was overthrown in 1974. The military coup, nicknamed the ‘Carnation Revolution’, was inspired by the liberation struggles which spread throughout Africa during the 1960s. It was aided by a section of army officers influenced by the Marxist literature they absorbed for counter-insurgency training. A new constitution was adopted and elections held in 1976. The centre-left Socialist Party won an overall majority, but Catholicism and its institutions continued to strongly influence both politics and culture in Portugal.
A Blundered Referendum
The issue of a woman’s right to choose over her pregnancy had been highly contentious in Portugal, as in many other countries. New legislation extending a woman's right to choose had been agreed in parliament in 1988, but the ruling Socialist party decided to pose the question in a referendum. It did so under considerable pressure from conservative sections of the establishment, and from the powerful Catholic church which threatened followers with excommunication if they supported a Yes vote.
Further confusing the message, and contrary to the position he had adopted in parliament, Prime Minister Guterres said that abortion was a matter of individual conscience. Not surprisingly, the referendum proved to be a terrible blunder, returning an indecisive vote of 51% against decriminalisation on a turnout of just 31%. It was not therefore legally binding.
Rego’s particular frustration was with those in Portuguese society who refused to engage on such an important issue. Triptych and its sister pieces sought to keep the debate alive, but it took almost 20 more years for women to be offered the right to choose.
Abortion remains a controversial and largely taboo subject to the present day. Many countries continue to have highly restrictive abortion laws, and the procedure is outlawed altogether in some nations, even on the most urgent medical grounds. These include Suriname, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iraq, Congo, Mauritania, Senegal, Angola, Lao and the Philippines.
Women in countries with overly restrictive abortion laws can travel abroad for a termination provided they have resources. But desperate women who are economically or socially restricted are condemned to source an illegal termination, risking jail and death from medical complications. There is no safe option.
Rego’s message remains resonant. Its relevance will continue until women secure both a universal right to choose and the means with which to exercise their choice.
14 May 2020
(c) Suzanne Muna