Last weekend I finally managed to visit Paula Rego’s Obedience and Defiance exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It is an exhibition full of paintings and drawings that span the length of her career. Her work is full of symbolism, with animals used often to depict the ways we harm and care for each other – a girl comforting a dog, a monkey and bear as husband and wife, and a huge painting full of terrifying rabbit children. As befits the title Obedience and Defiance, there is a sense of tension and anger that runs through a lot of the paintings.
But what I noticed the most was the emotion and resistance shown in the hands and feet of the paintings of figures. Women are seen grabbing onto a sheet or at their flesh as they waited to have an abortion, feet are ready to run or lovingly perched on the back of a dog.
Rego’s faces are often strangely emotionless, often older than their bodies suggest and sometimes mask-like, but their hands and feet portray so many emotions and character.
The show contains paintings about the referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal that didn’t pass, and the women are waiting in empty rooms for their backstreet abortions, legs up on makeshift stirrups made from chairs or beds. The power of the paintings may have changed peoples’ minds, as a later referendum passed. There are also etchings about FGM, of girls being held down by their mothers. These are the women of Obedience and Defiance, and their hands and feet are full of thought, movement and attitude.
Feet and hands tell us so much about who we are, they can hold so much tension or relate our stories. My hands are covered in burns and scars, and are constantly waving, outlining points in stories, gesticulating and clasping at ideas. Walking around the exhibition I was reminded of something I once read by Henry Moore, who had made drawings of his hands when he was eighty-one.
‘Hands can convey so much’ he said, ‘they can beg or refuse, take or give, be open or clenched, show content or anxiety. They can be young or old, beautiful or deformed’.
It seems that so many people have a problem painting hands and feet that a google search brings up hundreds of blogs, books and lectures on how to make them realistic. However, Rego manages to capture the character of each of her figures in their expressive hands, complete with their anxiety or happiness. They are expressive and full of narrative, yet beautifully simple in their style.
The exhibition is on until April, so make sure you get to visit it.