Frances Underhill / Painting of the Week

Painting of the Week: 33

Painting of the Week: 33

Paula Rego (born 1935), The Dance, 1988, acrylic on paper laid on canvas, 2130 x 2740 mm, Tate Collections (currently not on display).

I find Paula Rego’s The Dance both intriguing and disturbing. In this large painting, Rego presents us with a psychologically charged scene in which the real and imagined join together resulting in a painting that is openly narrative, yet lacking in an obvious story. The overall symbolism is that the dance being carried out is the dance of life; the group of three in the background representing the stages from childhood to old age, and the figures in the foreground suggesting innocence changing to courtship then marriage (the woman on the very right is pregnant).

Yet what interests me is the disquieting world that Rego has conjured up, one of true painterly fiction. The strongly modelled figures are not dancers, but somnambulists, with wide eyed stares and rhythmic movements that contrast with the stillness of the setting; the eerie dance reminding me of the slow pace in Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. The setting itself, although Rego imagined the painting to be set in a specific place, Ericeira, on the Portugese coast about thirty-five kilometres north-west of Lisbon, occupies a far more surreal and uncanny space, with the naively dressed figures shuffling before a cliff face topped by a shadowy fortress. The work is dreamlike and the result timeless, balancing continuous change with the permanence of existence. ■ FU

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