Lot 34
  • 34

Paula Rego

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  • Paula Rego
  • The Portugese Duck
  • pastel on paper
  • 137 by 101.5cm.; 54 by 40in.
  • Executed in 2003.


Marlborough Fine Art, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


Porto, Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Paula Rego, 2005, p. 219, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Paula Rego’s pictorial narratives often take as their source pre-existing literary or folkloric texts. Far from conventional storytelling, however, Rego goes beyond merely illustrating the narrative that is her point of departure. In her meticulously staged multi-figural tableaux, she rewrites the story visually, using her source as a screen on which to project her own narratives gleaned from autobiographical memory and imagination. In this way she creates a complex layering of narratives, both personal and political histories, meshed together by her exquisite draftsmanship.


Taking as its source Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous 1861 fairytale, The Portuguese Duck, 2003, exemplifies both the narrative complexity of Rego’s visual storytelling and the extraordinary stylistic and emotional range of her draftsmanship. In terse comic prose, Andersen tells of a farmyard populated by fowl, including a second-generation Portuguese duck, who adopts a fledgling songbird who has been chased from its nest by a cat. She vows: “If I had only such a little singing bird, I’d be kind and good as a mother to him, for it’s in my nature, in my Portuguese blood”. Doting maternal instinct turns to ambivalence, however, and in a fit of irrational aggression a chastising peck on the infant’s head intended to upbraid the songbird for singing turns into a fatal blow. After a perfunctory show of pity by the collective fowl, the drake, confident of the compassion of the group, exclaims: “Let us think of getting something to satisfy our hunger, that’s the most important business. If one of our toys is broken, why we have plenty more.”


Enduringly interested in the different entities of childhood and motherhood within the female psyche, Andersen’s tale is extremely pertinent to the investigatory thrust of Rego’s oeuvre. In The Portuguese Duck, Rego’s principal protagonist, a heavy-set Hispanic lady sits turgidly, legs akimbo on a pile of pillows, her face dazed and distressed. Just as the animals that populate Rego’s narratives assume anthropomorphic qualities, so here the zoomorphic, gallinaceous features of the protagonist reference the duck of the title. In terms of her physiognomy, her splayed legs, webbed feet, upright posture, protruding belly and the extension of her rear like tale-feathers resemble a farmyard bird. This is enhanced by the detail of her clothes, her white dress gathered at the elbow like wing plumage and the red headpiece resembling a fleshy cockscomb. In the foreground, the twisted limbs and snapped neck of a doll – the broken toy of Andersen’s tale – evokes the tragic demise of the songbird in Andersen's tale. Blue shadows, like the wings of a songbird, reference the source text while simultaneously evoking the innocence of traditional putti. In the background, the stern faced, elderly female figure looks on, representing the third generation of womanhood.


As in George Orwell’s famous farmyard tale, the micro becomes the macro in Rego’s invocation of the political through the domestic. Living and working in London, Rego articulates the question of Portuguese nationalism and its resonance for the Portuguese diaspora while recalling the historic divisions of Iberian identity. More immediately, however, this is a deeply personal work. Using pastel on paper to blur the boundaries between painting and drawing, Rego’s action based technique of mark-making physically inscribes the personality of the artist in the quality of the line. The picture’s surface is violently impacted and compacted, like the multiple narratives that it contains, engendering a deeply autobiographical and confessional mode of expression.