Paula Rego and Edvard Munch: Dance

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Today I present two paintings on a theme that has inspired two of my favourite painters: Paula Rego and Edvard Munch.

The theme is “Dance”. The idea came to me after I visited Munch’s “Dance of Life” in the Oslo National Gallery.

I will present each painting first, and then attempt to compare and contrast them.

Paula Rego’s: “The Dance” 1988

Rego was born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1935. Today she lives in London, and she continues to paint.

Paula Rego: The Dance
Paula Rego: The Dance. Tate Gallery, London

Paula Rego painted her “Dance” in 1988., after her husband Victor died, of multiple sclerosis.

It is a large painting, 2126 x 2740 mm.

Tate Gallery of London acquired the painting in 1989.

Paula Rego: Drawing for 'The Dance' 1988
Paula Rego: Drawing for ‘The Dance’ 1988

The painter had prepared eleven drawings for the composition.

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Paula Rego: The Dance. Tate Gallery, London (detail)

When looking at the painting, at first one notices the female figure on the left. She is out of proportion with the rest of the people on the painting.

A young woman who appears to be and at the same time not be in the dance. Pensive, ambivalent, awkward as she does not belong.

Paula Rego: The Dance. Tate Gallery, London (detail)
Paula Rego: The Dance. Tate Gallery, London (detail)

Then the spectator’s gaze turns to the trio of women who form a circle.

A girl, in the middle of the circle drwas the attention of a young woman, most likely her mother, and an older woman, most likely her grandmother.

The trio exhumes strength and joy.

Paula Rego: The Dance. Tate Gallery, London (detail)
Paula Rego: The Dance. Tate Gallery, London (detail)

The couple at the centre of the painting is happy. They are young, appear to be in love, and enjoy life.

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Paula Rego: The Dance. Tate Gallery, London (detail)

Finally, there is another couple, also enjoying their dance, but their anticipation is clear in their movement. The woman is pregnant, so it is not just a couple, it is the couple and the fetus in the womb.

Having “seen” all the dancers, let us now return to the woman on the left. Could it be that it is Rego looking at the stages of her life? Or of a woman’s life? If this is the case, what she sees does not fill her with joy. At best she is contemplative.

Edvard Munch: “Dance of Life” 1899-1900

Edvard Munch: Dance of Life, 1899-1900. National Gallery, Oslo.
Edvard Munch: Dance of Life, 1899-1900. National Gallery, Oslo.

Edvard Munch painted the “Dance of Life” at the turn of the 19th century (1899-1900). It is part of a series of paintings he created, called “The Frieze of Life”.

munch_dance11

In a framework provided by a moonlit summer night, Munch included in the painting the three stages of a woman’s life.

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Edvard Munch: Dance of Life, 1899-1900. National Gallery, Oslo. (detail)

On the left a young woman reaches for a flower. She is dressed in a yellow white dress, seems to be smiling, and does not really care for the dance as such.

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Edvard Munch: Dance of Life, 1899-1900. National Gallery, Oslo. (detail)

At the right, a woman dressed in black appears to be contemplating. She is sad, her gaze is heavy, she almost looks down. Her body is “frozen”, there is not even a hint of motion. This woman is so tired, so exhausted, that she does not have the emotional energy to be desperate. She has gone beyond desperation, to a state of nothingness. Which anticipates death.

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Edvard Munch: Dance of Life, 1899-1900. National Gallery, Oslo. (detail)

In the middle a woman in full bloom dances with her partner. She is dressed in red, and looks at her partner, who looks back at her. They both look young. There is some tension between them. This is not a care free dance, it is a dance that reveals or suspects the eternal conflict of the sexes.

Edvard Munch: Study for the Dance of Life 1899
Edvard Munch: Study for the Dance of Life 1899

Comparing and contrasting the paintings

The paintings have some features in common.

To begin with, they are paintings about women. Forget that there are men shown, they exist only because the women are there. The presence of men is “derived” from the presence of the women.

Another similarity, is that both paintings depict people dancing in a moonlit summer night.

A third similarity is that the paintings do not depict a large group of people intermingling, but discrete groups, couples, solitary figures. The discrete units of the painting are alone and at the same time they part of the painting.

Edvard Munch painting
Edvard Munch painting

Let us now consider some differences.

First of all, the style of the painters is distinctly different. Rego draws and then adds color. Munch does not draw, he just paints.

Then we have a difference of perspective.

Munch was a man, and a man whose relationships with women gave him a lot of problems, to say the least. His painting is a bleak one. There is a dark determinacy looming over the lives of the women depicted. The care free state of the young woman on the left will be succeeded by the erotic tension and battles of the couple in the middle, ending with the emptiness of the woman in black. The painting is “closed”, there is no way out.

Paula Rego
Paula Rego

Rego on the other hand is not exactly delirious with joy, but her picture is a tribute to the strength of women, and their way of making it through life. Making it may not be wonderful may not be easy, but Rego’s women are tough and robust and they make it, no matter what. It is their consitution, and also their relationships. In my mind the key to Rego’s painting is the cicrle of the girl, her mother and the grandmother. This is the bedrock of the family, and the bedrock of society. In this sense, Rego’s painting is “open”.  There will be problems, there will be pain, there will be death, but there will also be life.

 

 

 

 

 

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