The etchings and pastels that helped
to change a vicious law
These disturbing images have been on my phone camera since I first captured them at an exhibition of the
work of Paula Rego, in early 2022. They seem to be at just the right level of complexity, quality and confrontation to open PINBOARD, a new page of short(ish) items featuring visual art. These prints, and associated paintings in pastel, challenge and disturb. And they have had a direct effect on concerns that touch the lives of billions of people.
Paula Rego was born in Portugal, in1935, and has spent much of her adult life in England. In both countries she is recognised as one of the most respected artists of her generation. The Casa das Histórias Paula Rego was commissioned by the Portuguese government as a museum dedicated to her work - work which predominantly figures girls and women as its leitmotif.
Some of us might instantly see what is happening here, in these characteristically intense prints and paintings. But, when I encountered them - purposely avoiding their labels - I had to slowly deduce their meaning. The deeper I peered into the prints the more unsettling they became. These were clearly sites of suffering - solitary suffering. And these were clearly intimate settings, with their beds and armchairs and scattered clothes and underwear. But any possibility of actual intimacy was being annihilated by some kind of internal torture, and presumably torture from outside as well.
Eventually, I arrived at a conclusion as to what was happening. For many (most?) women and girls, this must be one of the most agonising experiences they could ever go through, both physically and emotionally. And one of the most dangerous: a back-street abortion.
“(This work) highlights the fear and pain and danger of an illegal abortion, which is what desperate women have always resorted to. It’s very wrong to criminalise women on top of everything else. Making abortions illegal is forcing women to the a backstreet solution.”
In 1998, a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal had failed. In immediate response, Paula Rego created the Abortion series, to bring attention to the dangers of making abortion illegal. The effect of her series was so powerful that it has been credited with helping to sway public opinion towards a second referendum. That referendum was held in 2007, and resulted in a change in the law.
Professor Sharon Cameron is a consultant gynaecologist and specialist in sexual and reproductive healthcare:
"As a gynaecologist I provide care for women throughout their lives and from puberty to beyond menopause. This includes helping women to become pregnant and also providing care when women have an unintended or unwanted pregnancy - so Rego's abortion series particularly marked me.
"The paintings depict women about to undergo a ‘backstreet’ abortion at a time/ place when abortion was illegal. The women are alone. A young schoolgirl, an older woman, possibly already a mother. Fear, shame, defiance or pain can be seen in their faces. The bucket beside them will soon be full of blood. The woman in the painting may die, she may suffer severe complications. Yet this is all preventable with safe, legal abortion.
"In countries where abortion is legal, it is an extremely safe procedure and increasingly it is performed at an early stage as a medical method that involves taking two types of medication. Safe abortion saves women’s lives and prevents the horrific consequences of unsafe procedures. Yet, tragically, 25 million of the estimated 56 million abortions that take place in the world each year are conducted under unsafe conditions, in countries where abortion is illegal or highly restricted. These unsafe abortions are a major cause of maternal death and disability. Most of these are in developing countries. It is estimated that unsafe abortion results in the deaths of between 22,ooo and 31,000 women every year. Deaths which are preventable through safe legal abortion.
"Restricting a woman’s access to abortion does not prevent abortion but simply leads to more unsafe abortions. Liberalising abortion laws around the world is essential for safe procedures but needs to be accompanied by health policies that support implementation of the law, increase the availability of trained providers, and work to remove the stigma of abortion in our societies."
But a success in liberalising the abortion laws in one place does not imply universal progress. While small Ireland might lift a strict ban, recent political upheavals in the vast United States have threatened what appeared to be a stable and benign approach to women's "right to choose". State by state, legal abortion is being threatened, and the Supreme Court may soon strike down an earlier federal ruling that legal abortion is a civil right. All over the world the world the struggle continues, and Paula Rego's Abortion series still has work to do:
"I hope the (series) helped bring attention to the injustice. Many critics talked about the colours rather than the subject matter, but the women knew what they were about. They could see it.
"It was thrilling to do those pictures, because they were true. Not nice or polite, but true.
"At the Slade [the London art school where she studied in the 1950s] everyone had abortions. In Ericeira [where she lived in Portugal] many women in the village had abortions, sometimes because they weren’t married but more often because they couldn’t feed another child. Sometimes, they would ask for money. I knew what they were going through and tried to help. I sent a woman who was haemorrhaging to my gynaecologist in Lisbon. If I had money, I would give it. It’s appalling that there was so much pain and suffering."
Spending time with this work makes me realise just how dense and complex it is, with layers of drama that remind me of novels, plays and films. Most of Paula Rego's work has some starting point in narrative:
"I always need a story. Without a story, I can’t get going. Maybe the story changes in the doing of it. I might discover it isn’t what I thought or intended. But I need it to find my way. I’m always looking for new stories"
One thing that strikes me is just how very different the etchings are from the paintings, not least in their emotional impact. The paintings seem descriptive, observed, even detached. The prints seem lived from within, experiencing the pain that is being described. The scraping, scratching stylus compared with the soft fur
brush. The smooth application of colour compared with the sharp downward incision and brisk rolling of ink, from white through grey to black.
When a version of the Abortion exhibition reached Los Angeles, in 2019, Ellen C Caldwell shared with the readers of the LA magazine Riot Material her analysis of their place in art history. She described Rego's subversions of some of the most familiar tropes of the European art tradition, The Gaze and The Reclining Nude.
"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.
"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 large basin sits beside the bed, presumably a prop for the abortion procedure.
"In a triptych, three woman lie or sit in different positions, all in the process of abortions, for circumstances we do not know, and do not need to know. In two of the three labels in this triptych, 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.
"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 Maria Manuel 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.”
Whether the viewer of these images - or even the artist - chooses to go all the way with Ellen C Caldwell and
Maria Manuel Lisboa is not of concern. What this rich response to the Abortion series shows is just how much there is to be provoked by these extraordinary works: a political intervention, a moral campaign, a debate about autonomy and agency, a reflection on art history and its relationship to the imbalance of power between the genders, and the contradictions and confusions that arise when we encounter intimacy, eroticism, desire, pleasure, pain, anguish, loss, isolation and despair
... to say the least. GD