Executed in 1996 in conjunction with the exhibition of Paula Rego’s iconic ‘Fantasia’ series at the Hayward Gallery, Island of Lights from Pinocchio marks the enduring importance of film and drawing in Rego’s work. As a child growing up in Portugal, Rego was spellbound by Hollywood’s golden age and her fondest memories are of expeditions to a local cinema with her grandmother which she likened to ‘discovering a new world’. Disney in particular provided Rego with a visual counterpart to the cherished stories of her childhood. Terrifying and mesmerising in equal measure, characters like ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Snow White’ left a lasting impression on Rego’s pictorial development, and throughout her career have provided the basis for her metaphorical yet inherently autobiographical compositions through which to channel her inner dreams and desires.
Rego’s work draws inspiration from a diverse panorama of sources. Ranging from personal childhood experiences to popular myths ingrained within the collective imagination through films and books, Rego’s large scale, narrative compositions actively involve the viewer through their subconscious familiarity and bold illustrative style. Bearing little regard for conventional restrictions of scale and linear time, Rego’s distinctive mode of figurative realism encourages her audience to roam freely around the composition in search of their often ambiguous meanings and associations.
Rego uses motifs familiar to her audience as metaphorical vehicles with which to address the important social and moral concerns of her age. Focusing upon the ambiguous aspects of folklore which Disney tends to dilute or condense in his renderings, rather than simply revisiting these classic movies with nostalgic adult eyes, Rego is able to produce mythic compositions that shirk sentimentality and approach the sublime. The grotesque, dense drawing here also recalls Goya with its fiercely caricatural asses and centaurs, (fig. 1).
Just like her large scale pastel works, Island of Lights affirms the continued importance of drawing for Rego, who throughout her career has used it as a means of escaping from the formality of easel painting taught to her at Slade. From a distance, the modelling and crosshatching of the figures is as vibrant and crystalline as the glowing colour of a Disney film, but closer up, the graphically and chromatically bold marks begin to disengage from the muscle and tone they demarcate to take on a formal life of their own. Rego's bold and voyeuristic realism articulates the all-over composition through tightly juxtaposed and overlapping forms, which add to the ambiguity and Dionysian confusion of the scene.
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