- Paula Rego
- The Cadet and his Sister
- acrylic on paper laid down on canvas
- 214 by 151.1cm.; 84 1/4 by 59 1/2 in.
- Executed in 1988.
Private Collection, New York
Ivor Braka, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1999
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia; and Washington, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Paula Rego, 2007, pp. 79 and 255, illustrated in colour
Fiona Bradley, Paula Rego, London 2002, p. 38, illustrated in colour
In a scene of an impending departure, a young cadet is preparing to leave for his military service. His sister has knelt down beside him to tie his shoelaces. Her handbag and gloves are placed at her side, whilst a small cockerel flanks the young boy. With an azure blue sky that recalls the Portuguese Azulejo tiles, the composition is bathed in the warm light of the Mediterranean. Stark architectural linearity, long shadows and an empty tree-lined avenue conjure the surrealist scenes of Giorgio de Chirico. On first glance the work tells the tale of a caring relationship between two siblings. However, permeated with allegorical references and symbolism it is a multi-layered narrative, where nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
The underlying symbolic complexities of the work are most pertinently outlined by the artist herself: "I wanted the young man to be slightly younger than his sister, possibly thirteen and she’d be like fifteen, and she’s more knowing than he is and he’s depending on her quite a lot... I very much wanted that avenue going up and disappearing into the distance, a bit like a theatrical backdrop. And the sky is meant to be like a sky from my catechism book. And then the props were very important. Her bag had to be brown like that, and lined in red. I mean it had to be dangerous, as if it could snap shut. Both it and the gloves are like – I suppose it’s pretty obvious – but like sex symbols. But opposites. And the cockerel is small and puffed up, and a pretend one, a porcelain one; so it shows he’s impotent, the poor cadet. And it’s a lesson you see – a lesson for us and also a lesson between the two of them. It’s about accepting fate; accepting the way things are; in a nice sort of way. It’s not an unhappy picture at all” (Paula Rego quoted in: John McEwen, Paula Rego, London 1992, p. 166). Two years later Rego elaborated upon this with a somewhat unnerving explanation: “It’s about incest. They have just made love. She dresses him. He is going away to do his military service. The cock is his masculinity. The handbag is her femininity. It’s a container but it snaps shut. It could castrate him. The gloves have various connotations – a surgeon, a gardener, a butcher. The walls are abrupt and the avenue seems false, like a backdrop. Or if it is real it is a dead-end – incest leads nowhere. His future is destroyed. She will control him forever” (Paula Rego quoted in: ibid., p. 167).
An ambiguous tale of control and domination, love and loss that offers some of Rego's unique repertoire of black humour and emotive potency, The Cadet and his Sister is a pertinent work by this venerated chronicler of human drama. As a candid storyteller, Rego has never been afraid to upend traditions and explore disquieting facets of human nature with a unique emotional honesty and frankness. Through a pertinent use of metaphor and association her works evoke voluminous emotions and narratives and have been widely recognised as incisive portraits of human existence.