Dame Paula Rego’s artwork is brutal. It Realistic detail is used to manipulate the surreal into grotesque visual fair. Humans interact with over-sized animals whose hair you can feel by looking at the image. You flinch when figures contort themselves with pained expressions, regarding your own physical state.
One particularly interesting trait in Dame Rego’s work is her choice to sometimes illustrate children in adult bodies. She believes that children are not blissfully innocent, but posses a kind of knowing. This suits her visual exploration of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. Dame Rego illustrates Jane as both a woman and a child, but not based on the timeline. Jane is chastised, punished, in the text for not being more child-like. By this, the adults around her mean that she is aware, intelligent, and capable of conversation that is not fluff. Yet, they wish for her to be simple. Her disposition is cultivated by an early life wrought with cruel treatment. The stormy tone of the book suits Dame Rego’s style in more ways than this. Jane Eyre has mystery, darkness, and fantasy that walks the edge more on the side of reality. At times, there is an explanation for such things, yet the fantastic description stays in the mind. It allows the reader to believe in the possibility that these chilling moments crossed from reality to the other side.
“Loving Bewick” depicts an adult Jane set to devour a pelican. This embodies the very first pages of the book where Jane hides behind the curtain in a windowsill to read Bewick’s book about animals, virtually eating up the text to cherish each morsel of knowledge gained.
In “Inspection,” a young Jane stands on a stool as the minister examines her to discover if she is as evil as her Aunt claims she is. Jane is so small beneath the gaze of these over-sized grown ups, emphasizing the absurdity of their perceiving the presence of a devil in Jane. An over-sized defense that would rising up against what they deem the threat of a budding intellectual.
My favorite quote from the text, “The shadows are just as important as the light,” sums up the protagonist herself.* She is a complex web of her experiences. After spending a lifetime misunderstood, and introverted as a consequence, Jane encounters Master Rochester. To most people, she silently fades into the background like a portrait on a wall. Yet, the depth of her inner life shows itself as a mysterious and frightful quality in his eyes. He describes her as set apart from society and culture like a nun, but senses her humanness. He invites her into conversation, finding her to be his intellectual match. He registers her as being a person with an astute shell raised against the experiences that life gave to her. “You are no more naturally astute than I am naturally vicious,” he says because he too buried his heart beneath memories of poor treatment.* Dame Rego’s illustrations capture his ragged, brash shell that is often softened in film adaptations.
Learn more about Dame Paula Rego here.