From Annunciation to Adoration: Christmas told by Paula Rego

Da Anunciação à Adoração: O Natal contado por Paula Rego

Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration are three of the most representative and represented themes of Christian iconography. Deeply associated with the Christmas imagination, they have been inspiration for several artists over time, from Giotto (1267-1337) to Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Using different techniques, supports and figurative solutions, they allow the viewer to follow not only the evolution of artistic language, but also the adaptation and transposition of themes to the time and experiences of their creators.

In 2002, Paula Rego (b. 1935) would also focus on these themes, in a series of eight canvases commissioned by the then President of the Republic Jorge Sampaio (b. 1939) for the chapel of Palácio de Belém. Cycle of Life of the Virgin Mary the Portuguese artist would break conventions, leaving us a portrait of the mother of Christ as a woman.

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In a journey built between Portugal and the United Kingdom, Paula Rego asserts herself as one of the most important names in international contemporary art.

Her talent was recognized early on, so her father, believing that Portugal was not a land for women, encouraged her to join the Slade School of Fine Art, in London. It was during the time she attended this institution (1952-1956) that she met her future husband, also painter Victor Willing (1928-1988), playing a troubled passion that would serve as inspiration for some of the artist's later works.

In the 1960s, he captured the attention of critics, obtaining everything from applause to insults with his first exhibition at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes, in Lisbon. Her work, then considered "a shocking novelty", already reflected the nonconformist character of Paula Rego and a denunciation of hidden reality.

The collages and almost abstract reconstructions of this first artistic period, where some influences from Dubuffet (1901-1985) can be found, progressively gave way to a more figurative painting, where he explored the potential of gouache and pastel.

Inspired by the prints that she saw in books as a child, in the company of her father, Paula Rego favors narrative construction in her works, often drawing inspiration from traditional and fairy tales. It was with the purpose of deepening this universe that, in 1976, he obtained a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Despite her production moving away from the exploration of performative and conceptual art that had gained progressive prominence since the 1960s, Paula Rego gained recognition from the artistic system by being the first invited to join, in 1990, the Associate Artist Scheme, at the National Gallery in London.

The images he leaves us with - which actors on stage? - complex narratives, loaded with psychological tensions and dramas, that explore the most visceral emotions. Her imaginative and imagery power asserted itself as a cry, which revolutionized the way in which love, sexuality and women themselves are represented.

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A Virgin with a young face marked by pain, angels who move away from the ethereal imagination and shepherds in whom we recognize the faces of common people, transpose onto the canvas the corporeality and human character of characters that we recognize from so many other representations.

Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds are part of the Cycle of Life of the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ, entrusted to Paula Rego in February 2002 by the then President of the Portuguese Republic, Jorge Sampaio, during an official visit to the United Kingdom.

The result was eight canvases destined for the chapel of the Palace of Bethlehem - Annunciation, Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, Nativity, Adoration of the Shepherds, Escape to Egypt, Our Lady of Mercy, Lamentation over the Body of Christ and Assumption of the Virgin -, in which the artist sought to highlight the figure of Mary, recounting the events from the point of view of the mother of Christ.

Artists from different geographies and chronologies have found, over time, different plastic solutions to represent these themes, drawing inspiration either from biblical texts or from the images that were spreading.

In an interview with Richard Zimler (b. 1956), Paula Rego highlights the importance that her work at the National Gallery exerted for the conception of this series, due to its proximity to and familiarization with Christian iconography.

However, Paula Rego gives these characters Portuguese traits that we often find in her work and that are reflected in their faces, clothes, hairstyles, transporting us to the country of the 1940s or 1950s.

The Virgin Mary of the Nativity, with her knees together and her feet turned inwards, appears as a shy girl looking towards the Angel, here represented as a matron. The position of your right hand on your belly, but which at the same time seems to hold a child in your arms, is the symbol of the good news it announces. However, only a light luminous aura around Mary and Gabriel's wings indicate its sacred character.

About this painting he would say: "I have five versions of this painting, because I couldn't hold it. I made the figures and put them on the stage, which reminded me of Indian religious paintings, those with very bright colors. Then I said that's right! color and ambience for all frames."

Paula Rego | P55 Magazine | P55 - The platform of Art

On the other hand, it would be the representation of the Nativity that would raise a greater controversy. To the traditional animals and starry sky that make up the background, Paula Rego contrasted the figure of Mary lying on the ground, legs apart in a childbirth position, resting her head on the legs of the same Angel of matronly complexion, who now assists in the birth of Christ.

However, it is worth emphasizing the proximity of this iconography to that of the women that Paula Rego represented in her works on abortion: life and its loss in a dichotomy that is linked to the very destiny of Christ.

Paula Rego | P55 Magazine | P55 - The platform of Art

Finally, Adoração dos Pastores, a theme that lends itself to the picturesque representation of nature and animals, is worked on by Paula Rego in this cycle as a closed setting, which focuses attention on the characters. Once again Paula Rego uses the luminosity of colors to give a sacred character to Mary and Jesus, reinforcing the contrast with the dark tones that characterize the three shepherds.

When asked about elements such as the tiger or the snake in the hands of the Virgin, Paula Rego says that she was inspired by the elements that surrounded her in her studio, not giving them any symbolic explanation. The presence of the reptile is stated, however, as curious, not failing to exercise a parallel with the idea of original sin in the Old Testament.

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