During a time in which eight U.S. states have passed bills to limit women’s rights to abortions, Paula Rego’s Untitled: The Abortion Pastels seems timely and relevant. Made between July 1998 and February 1999, this series of ten works features personal and quietly anguished portraits of women who have just undergone or are undergoing, at-home, illegal abortions. Rego, born in Portugal and living in Britain, was motivated to create this series about her home country after a referendum to liberalize existing abortion laws was proposed and defeated in Portugal during the summer of 1998. She saw this as a rallying cry for change and used her art as a response and motivator.
As both Agnete Strøm and Maria Manuel Lisboa have argued, Rego’s choice of abortion as a thematic subject “is at odds with long-standing traditions in the visual arts in the West.” They both quote U.S. Circuit Judge John T. Noonan’s 1976 essay “How to argue about abortion” to discuss the ways in which Rego’s subject veers directly away from traditional motifs in Western art. Noonan points out not only how rarely abortion appears in the art historical canon, but also how much more paintings of the Nativity instead celebrate and exalt the opposite: birth. In other words, as Lisboa explains, “[a]bortion clearly stands as the exact antithesis of the initiatory (and iconographic) moment of Annunciation.”
Rego’s pastels make a compelling plea in order to emphasize a woman’s right to choose. She does this in a number of ways, by playing with and destabilizing two typical tropes of Western art history.
In all of Rego’s pastels she plays with the gaze in a variety of ways. Whether the young woman, or girl in many cases, is looking directly at the viewer, looking away in agony, or closing her eyes in pain, Rego controls the women’s gaze in conscious ways. Viewers are not invited by coy, sparkling eyes to explore the women’s bodies as pleasure domains of the assumed white, cis, hetero male viewer. (See Titian, Manet, Matisse, Gauguin, ad nauseum for examples of this.) No, here in these quiet pastels, Rego controls the gaze and, in turn, the viewer.
In Untitled N° 1, a young woman stares directly into the viewer’s eyes while sitting on a table with her legs held in her arms and spread open. The woman is clothed in a long, loosely fitted tank top or night gown so that we, as viewers, do not have access to see between her legs. All that we are invited to see is her circumstance. She sits and stares directly at us with a stoic and strong gaze, as if to share her pain, denial, and even anger at her situation. As in most of the works in the series, a larger basin sits beside the bed, presumably a prop for the abortion procedure. Another bowl sits ominously next to her—perhaps a tool once used in the home for domestic items like fruit or soup, this bowl now becomes part of a medical procedure because of Portugal’s strict regulations on a woman’s body.
In Triptych b and c, two woman lie or sit in different positions, both in the process of abortions, for circumstances we do not know, and do not need to know. In these works, the women look sideways, or side-eyed at the viewer, both defiant and even accusatory. Here, it seems that Rego does welcome us to look, but only to see the pain and agony of the reality that is abortion. This is heightened knowing that these at-home procedures add another layer of pain in their less sterile and less medically safe environment. However, it is important that we do not see shame, nor a desire for secrecy. Instead, through their eyes and Rego’s pastels, this is a woman’s world, a woman’s pain, a woman’s body, and most importantly a woman’s right.
The Reclining Nude
In works such as Untitled N° 4, Untitled N° 6, and Triptych b, women recline much as they do in the works of European men mentioned above (Titian, Manet, Matisse, Gauguin, etc.). However, these women are not there as an object of desire, nor are they there as a fertile suggestion of sexual, scopophilic lust. They are instead there for themselves, depicted lying in exquisite pain which comes as the result of sex and desire.
There is a challenge in the way that Rego positions both the women depicted and her viewers in order to bring up that push and pull between sexual attraction, the actual act of sex, and the very physical outcomes such as pregnancy and miscarriage that can occur (and often do occur) as a result of sex. The fact that that Rego portrays these women, not necessarily as mature women, but more so as developing youth also suggests the possibility that their abortions might be stemming from something darker too — “rape, abuse, incest, power-imbalanced sex between grown men and young girl,” as Lisboa has suggested.
Their age and youthfulness is important in considering both the aforementioned gaze and the reclining nude trope. As Lisboa puts it, “the models are not women but girls, and their posture is not one of sensual invitation but wracking pain.” She discusses the typical dichotomy optioned for women throughout Western art: the virgin or the whore and presents a world in which Rego has shattered these “options” to pieces. “Trouble begins to arise in this particular, neatly dichotomous, painterly paradise of virgins and whores, when, as is the case with the Rego abortion pictures, the woman who clearly lapsed and sinned, and who moreover is about to compound that sin of fornication with the crime of abortion, carries not the accoutrements of the whore, but rather all the hallmarks of the coltish or half-grown, newly-fledged, hairless and untouched girl.”
Through the women’s direct gazes and their reclining, youthful figures flaunting not their bodies but their internal pain, Rego puts the viewer in a quite purposeful predicament, leaving them with ambivalent questions at best. Are you to take joy in these women’s suffering? Are you to take joy in a potential child’s suffering? At what cost does male pleasure come? How has looking, and the pleasure of looking, led to this situation?
Through a pastel lense, Rego creates a world that is more typically associated with a light and agreeable aesthetic, but the reality of her subject is much harder to digest. As Rachel Taylor writes for the Tate, “[t]he image is a devastating inversion of the traditional reclining female nude. Lying on a bed with her legs spread, this woman is not an erotic object but a defiant subject. She keeps her clothes on, maintaining what dignity she can. Her unflinching gaze puts the viewer in the position of the man who, although partly responsible for the pregnancy, by virtue of his gender takes none of the physical burden of its termination. Her stare may also be meant for those who maintain the status quo by making abortion hard to procure legally and easy to dismiss morally.”
With her Abortion Pastels, Paula Rego creates a world that reflects the actual lived experiences of our world. It is as if she arrives as a fly on the wall in the homes of real women to offer everyday viewers and lawmakers a glimpse of their daughter, mothers, and friends. Part of the power of Rego’s series is that she brings the topic of abortion, often held as a shameful secret between couples, women, friends, or one’s self, to the light of day and to the art historical canon. Through her imagery, Rego defiantly argues for a women’s right to choose and to defend their bodies how they see fit, regardless of the church and states’ opinions placed on them via law and Christian morals.
Paula Rego, abortion etchings
Ellen C. Caldwell is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ms. Caldwell also reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of her work, visit eclaire.me