Paula Rego was born in 1935, in Lisbon, Portugal, and currently lives and works in London. Rego attended the Slade School of Fine Art and was an exhibiting member of the London Group, along with Frank Auerbach and David Hockney, she was also the first artist-in-residence at the National Gallery in London. Rego is particularly well known for her paintings based on story books although Rego has also explored hard hitting themes such as illegal abortion, which she created in response to a failed attempt of legalising abortion in her home country of Portugal in 1988. For the purpose of this blog post I will be looking more closely at her series on ‘Dancing Ostriches’.
Dancing Ostriches above is part of a larger series which Rego created using pastel on paper on mounted aluminium. The series is inspired by the would-be ballerina birds in Disney’s Fantasia. Immediately I feel like the images are strong and gritty, not what you might expect from elegant and dainty ballerinas who so often glide across the stage, although Rego does not necessarily produce the expected. Yet Ballerinas are both elegant, effortless but incredibly strong, I think Rego captures this well. It also appears as though the body here is distorted somewhat, the arms and legs are quite short and stocky, not a typical ballerina’s physique. Perhaps Rego purposefully did not want to objectify the ballerinas in a stereotypical manner of considered societal beauty, and instead wanted to accentuate their physical strength. The gaze of the dancing ostriches also does not fit with the viewer, they are preoccupied and looking elsewhere.
For my response to Rego’s work I immediately thought of the film ‘Black Swan’ in which Natalie Portman plays a tortured Ballerina who descends into madness when she experiences feelings of immense pressure in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet by the New York City Ballet company. I chose this photo due to the beautiful lighting, as well as the expression of Portman’s face and the strong line and shadow, something which I found in Rego’s work. I also had an idea in which I could experiment with both acrylic paint to create the main painting and then using pastel to highlight contours and create the dusty cloud of light above Portman.
I used black ink to create the initial background but did work in some thicker acrylic paint to create a more opaque finish. You can see some of the difference in this in how the pastel has stuck to the paper. I used the side of the pastel to try and create an even finish over the top and then a large soft bristled paint brush to work in the pastel and create more of a dusting. I don’t think it was wholly effective and would require some more experimentation with different paper and painted backgrounds to try and recreate the desired image but I’m happy that I could utilise the same technique of using pastel which Rego has in her work. I also wanted to try and capture the strong line and contour that Rego depicts in ‘Dancing Ostriches’ which I did by using watered down black acrylic to form shadow and line and then working over again using the pastels also. I’m pleased with the overall response as an experiment, although admit the portrait itself does not represent Portman, I think it does capture that sense of turmoil she is feeling in this pose, even though her lips are looking slightly pouty and posed!