Discussing the present work Rego explained,
'This comes from a famous Spanish novel called Nada ('nothing') by Carmen Laforet, which I read in English. It was published in 1945 but the action takes place just after the Spanish Civil War. Apart from those references, it could be a Portuguese novel. A girl called Andrea goes to study at her aunt's house in Barcelona. The story is about her growing up and coming to terms with the difficulty of things. It's the most dysfunctional family you can imagine, and poor. The aunt is a difficult woman and a figure of authority, but she is also vulnerable because she is having an affair with a married man. Also in the family are a grandmother and two brothers, Andrea's cousins, one of whom is married and has a little boy who is very sickly: I have represented him in the form of a little skeleton, which Lila made. The little boy's mother is a bit of a tart. The grandmother busies herself looking after this child. The older brother is a gifted musician who plays the violin very well. There is also a maid – they always had maids, whether they were poor or not – and she controls a lot of the household.
'The aunt has a room of her own, so I placed the story there, setting everything up in the studio and then copying it. I made the figure of the aunt myself; her head is based on a photograph I saw of a woman who I thought looked stern and interesting. The only figure painted from someone real is that of the heroine, reflected in the mirror.' (Paula Rego, exhibition catalogue, Museo Nacional Centro de Arts Reina Sofia, 25th September - 30th December 2007, p.274-5).
This thoroughly descriptive story provides a great deal of information to digest when viewing The Aunt (Nada) and yet Rego is not giving us a description of the picture (many of the details she describes are not referenced in the painting), but her incredibly rich source of inspiration. Rego conveys a powerful sense of narrative in the painting, bringing her characters to life by dramatising their appearance and presenting them on what is clearly a stage built in her studio. The 'difficult' aunt, 'a figure of authority' is a stout and heavy woman, her clothing dark and dour in comparison to the hyperrealist vivid colour Rego has given the rest of the scene. Her face is hard and her eyes distant. And yet the human hidden within the intimidating façade is suggested by the bright purple shoe escaping from the old-fashioned dress. The result is intense and psychologically disturbing.
The choice of pastel as a medium, which Rego has used exclusively since 1993, heightens the drama and urgency of the scene. 'It looked real... With pastel, it's like drawing and painting at the same time...everything is drawn, one line after the other, all the lines going in and out of each other, building something up in line which is colour at the same time" (Ibid., p. 83).
Although The Aunt (Nada) is not auto-biographical, it is interesting to consider Rego's own childhood when viewing the painting. Rego grew up in a household of women. Her mother and father left her in the care of her grandmother when they came to England for her father to work for Marconi in Essex. Alongside her grandmother, Rego lived with her great aunt, who suffered from manic depression, and a series of maids and a governess.
Following a period of depression, Rego began Jungian analysis in 1973 which rekindled her interest in the folk tales and story-telling of her childhood in Portugal. She began to delve into the topic of fairy-tale, reading texts such as Marie-Louise von Franz's 'The Interpretation of Fairy Tales' and works by Hermann Hesse. Winning a Gulbenkian Foundation research grant provided Rego with six months study in the British Library where she delved further into the origin of folk tales, reading early fairy stories by the originator of the literary form in Europe, Giovanni Francesco Straparola.
Although the inspiration for the present painting comes from a 20th Century literary text rather than a fairy-tale, there seems no doubt that this rich period of research informs her work up to the present day. The Aunt (Nada) provides a powerful feeling of looking back in time, revisiting the past from another country and another time.
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