An Invitation to Life's Dance

The Monitor invites you to sit in on a series of conversations with curators at major art museums on choice objects in their collections

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Paula Rego keeps alluding to storytelling in her pictures," says Lewis Biggs, "so that you know you're in the game of storytelling. But she doesn't actually give you the story. She gives you all kinds of characters."

He agrees this is like being provided with a puppet theater. "Yes.... And you have to tell the story that holds all the characters together."

Mr. Biggs is curator of the Tate Gallery Liverpool, one of two out-of-London branches of the Tate, Britain's national gallery of modern and British art. He has been with the Liverpool Tate since its inception in 1988. That also happened to be the year that Rego painted "The Dance." This large picture (nearly 7 feet by 9 feet), and 11 related drawings by the Portuguese-born, British artist, are in the Tate's permanent collection. They are currently on exhibit in Liverpool as part of a special Rego show.

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Biggs is keen to talk about a "striking" painting he greatly admires, by an artist he has long known personally.

The painting shows "an actual location - with the brooding presence of the castle in the background. It is in Ericeira, Portugal, where Rego's family home is." So it has "strong meanings for her, although I have no way of telling what they are."

He has talked about many things with the artist, but not, in fact, this "moonlight scene" with its "rather cold atmosphere."

He believes 1988 was a crucial year for Rego. "She was given two retrospective exhibitions - her first. She was about 50. Clearly she would have been looking back over her life so far - and wondering what the future had in store for her. An additional reason she might have been doing that was that her husband was entering the final stages of a terminal illness, and it was he who suggested she concentrate on the subject of a dance."

Because of the picture's "high horizon," Biggs sees it as "partially a bird's-eye view. And because of its large size, it dominates your field of vision and you feel implicated somehow in what is going on.

"The figures are not life-size, but they certainly feel as if they are. The largest one on the left could be. She is in a focal position. Originally she had a male partner, but he was painted out.

"The figures - except this one - are in groups, but these groups don't relate to each other. That is odd, but paradoxically it helps to include the viewer in the whole scene. The fact that the single figure is staring out at the viewer is a kind of invitation to join in. Particularly, maybe, if you are a man!

"The different groupings can be seen as a cycle of life. The little girl is dancing with a woman old enough to be her mother and another old enough to be her grandmother. "The figures immediately in front of us would seem to be a courting couple. And the right-hand figures seem like one stage further on: The woman is pregnant. So if there is an allegorical content to this, one has to ask what the figure on the left is doing. What is the next stage after pregnancy and family and courting are all finished?

REGO painted all the female figures from one model, a close Portuguese friend. Biggs is sure these figures also have a strong element of self-portraiture about them. The removal of the large figure's partner can be seen, he suggests, from "a psychological point of view. If she was looking to the future and her husband was dying, then he had to be painted out, and the figure had to take on the future on her own. In order to give our friends and family immortality when they die, we have to take them into ourselves. So it would be a logical way for that large figure to have grown."

He is intrigued by a notion of "time stopped" in this dreamlike picture. "We have wonderful flowing draperies, but you get no sense of the wind flowing through them; they are just fixed. It reminds me of the [17th-century French painter Nicolas] Poussin picture of the dance in the National Gallery with figures meant to be in motion yet completely stilled." The way the pregnant woman's sandal half slips from her heel is "a still, if you like, from a movie.

"And remember, in Hitchcock's film 'Strangers on a Train,' the scene where a carousel gets out of control and people are flung off? In 'The Dance' it is as if the large figure has been flung off the merry-go-round of life.

"I do think it's quite a disturbing - a subversive - painting, maybe more destabilizing for being subtly so. Because at first - and even third - glance it seems a very standard subject with a huge tradition, and therefore unlikely to shock us. But the power with which it is done asks questions of us. Rego having given us the characters, if we tell the stories, we then reveal ourselves."

*The Paula Rego show at Tate Gallery Liverpool runs through April 13. Then the show moves to Centro Cultural de Belm in Lisbon, where it will be from May 15 to Aug. 17.

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