Stories in Paint

Le fete by Paula Rego

I came home from France ten days ago now, but the thing that still haunts me is the collection of images I saw in an exhibition at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

As the name suggests, the building, which is situated in the Tuilerie Gardens, was once a hot house for growing oranges. It is now one of my favourite galleries in the world. Normally I go there to see the incredibly restful and evocative waterlily paintings that Claude Monet donated to the French people. Two connecting rooms at the heart of the building, specially adapted for the purpose, display these massive art works which wrap around the walls and enclose the viewer in a garden full of light and colour. Long padded benches run down the centre of each room and invite us to sit and contemplate the lilies floating gently on the ripples of the dappled pond. Sometimes I sit on these benches admiring the paintings for so long that I begin to feel as if I too am floating on that deep blue-purple water.

But this year it is a temporary exhibition on the floor below which has stayed with me longer. It’s a collection of paintings by Portuguese artist, Paula Rego and it’s  anything but restful. The paintings, and some of  the 3D models the artist constructed to work from, tell Portuguese folk tales traditionally told to children. Like the folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, they are confronting, challenging and unforgettable. While I admire the way Paula Rego’s unique voice comes through in the pictures, her honesty is brutal. There are strong parallels to some of our own cautionary tales and  nursery rhymes. Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosie, Little Miss Muffet and Red Riding Hood come to mind, although others are unfamiliar. I don’t think I’ll be discussing any of these pictures with my grandchildren, even in Portuguese. But I do think there is a mysterious beauty, even sympathy and courage, in Paula Rego’s way of telling the traditional stories of her own country in paint.

Come to think of it we all survived Halloween last week. Kids are tougher than we think.

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