The woman’s face shows calmness and certainty. She is richly dressed in a full long gold-coloured skirt and black close-fitting jacket. We look up at her, not only at the picture hung on the wall but in the world of the picture, whose perspective suggests a view from her waist height. In her right hand she carries a sword. She is an angel: of vengeance, it seems. That crease at the right of her mouth, turning upwards: she has no malevolence, just one clear task.
In her left hand she carries a sponge, which the caption refers to the sponge held up to dampen Jesus’ lips at the crucifixion, but I more prosaically think of as cleansing. I love to gaze up at this strong woman.
She is part of a series, after a novel. The next picture is of a paedophile priest, face and body twisted on a bed. The caption indicates he is in sexual arousal, I would not have imagined that explanation. Rego is angrier than I, not clinging to comfort, clearer seeing. There is no avenging angel in the novel.
There are women at the backstreet abortionist’s, anticipating the treatment or curled in a ball after it, with faces and postures that could be completely broken or in grim determination.
The exhibition starts with works from the time of the Salazar dictatorship, with an intense anger in “when we had a house in the country we’d throw marvellous parties then we’d go out and shoot negroes”, or “Salazar vomiting the homeland”. A host of solitary figures on the canvas are twisted and distorted, not relating or related.
And then there are the men. Her husband had MS, and ran her father’s business into the ground, and she portays him curled on a bed in a skirt, with women in control. Or two girls dressing a dog. The dog has no fight or resistance left. They control him.
Or, “The Maids,” based on a play. That’s a man’s face, not an “androgynous” one as the caption says. He sits, in women’s clothes, unaware or acquiescent of their knowingness and control.
The exhibition ends with a picture of the artist painting a sleeping man. The caption suggests that this reverses the usual order, but she might be read as femininely attentive, carefully looking up at him. On her face I read professional absorption, calmly executing a task. Her calf is firmly supporting her, and is emphasised in my view. I look at that strong calf in the court shoe with slight heel.
Strong women, without illusion, doing what must be done, and passive or useless men. I find these women intensely beautiful, as role model or imagined partner.
The works, mostly in pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, are wonderfully smooth of surface. I chatted to a worker at the gallery. Normally, she says, hanging an exhibition, you just get on with it, fixing the pictures to the wall like a carpenter on a building site; but here they unwrapped the pictures and were increasingly overwhelmed, delighting in them.