Growing up in Portugal before moving to London to study at the Slade School of Art, Rego has always been fascinated by the world of Walt Disney. The mesmerising but terrifying stories she watched in the cinema with her grandmother were embedded in the artist’s memory from a young age. Rego’s mature work explores these familiar sources, not as illustrations, but as ambiguous and psychologically charged sets that are left for the viewer to decipher. This is characteristic of the artist's original practice, where the absence of a clear narrative is often balanced with interpretative suggestions.
In Island of the Lights from Pinocchio, Rego has chosen a pivotal and dramatic development in the adventures of Pinocchio. On Pleasure Island, a popular holiday destination in the story, a malevolent spell transforms young boys into donkeys, who are then sold off to work in the salt mines. Capturing the drama of this metamorphosis and the struggle of its protagonists, Rego has employed a dynamic compositional structure dominated by a stark black and white contrast. The tumultuous combat that ensues in the tale is depicted with Rego’s usual ambiguity – not suggesting the resolution of the struggle, but rather inviting contemplation over the dramatic moment.
Although Rego’s work depicts a chapter from a popular tale, the existential struggle of the story reflects the deeply serious concerns that the artist took on throughout her practice. Her fascination with Disney films is in fact largely due to the darker undercurrent that such stories represent behind their adventurous appearances. The epic fight between donkeys and children in Island of the Lights from Pinocchio has a long line of historical precedents, as images of the struggle between life and death have simultaneously frightened and fascinated people throughout the centuries.
By highlighting the existential undertone of the story of Pinocchio, Rego masterfully lays bare the venerable religious appearances of the tale. In its current manifestation as a fairy tale, hell is represented by a mine on the island – indeed reminiscent of the underworld in classical mythology. Moreover, the duality between humans and animals that is explored in the tumultuous battle, is reminiscent of age-old representations of the last judgement, and indeed of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous depictions of hell.
Island of the Lights from Pinocchio is therefore a highly emblematic work within Paula Rego’s oeuvre, which captures both her interest in popular mythologies and the dramatic existential battles they represent. The unique visual language of her drawings in ink and watercolour on paper, which she uses to avoid the formality of easel painting, is beautifully expressed in the present work, making it a subtle take on a story that has ingrained itself in our collective memories.
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