Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden a ‘triumphant vision of female experience’

When Paula Rego was asked to paint a mural for the dining room of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing in 1990, it “seemed a thoughtless insult”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. The artist, who died last year aged 87, was renowned for focusing on the kinds of people normally ignored in art. Her work addressed “the plight of women as cooks, cleaners, waitresses and all-round aproned slaves”; surely she “deserved better” than an upmarket canteen.

Yet she took to the task with gusto, resolving to produce a contemporary response to the Carlo Crivelli altarpiece “The Madonna of the Swallow” (c.1491), which depicts the lives of women from biblical history and folklore. The result was “Crivelli’s Garden“, a nine-metre-long mural that incorporates “a dense anthology of stories” from biblical and mythological sources, as well as references to aspects of Rego’s own life. Now, the mural has been brought into the gallery itself, and is being shown alongside the masterpiece that inspired it, for this small, free-to-enter exhibition.

I had always thought of the mural as a “playful work, perfectly judged for its setting in a convivial dining room, full of love for the Renaissance art this museum houses”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. Yet here it has been cast as a “Major Masterpiece of Radical Art”. In the exhibition catalogue, Rego’s son, Nick Willing, explains that she saw the National Gallery as a place that almost solely reflected the male experience, and she had set out to challenge “the patriarchy to examine itself”.

The trouble is that while Rego could be “a formidable”, “psychologically acute artist”, her interest in fairy tales and folklore sometimes edged her into feyness – and it is that side of her that we see here. “Crivelli’s Garden” bursts “with incident and imagination”; blue Portuguese tiles teem with images from myths and Bible stories “in which women feature powerfully”. But it is so “high on storytelling” that the effect is confusing, and there is a descent into whimsy. Crivelli’s altarpiece, by contrast, “bristles with wit, life and danger”. Enjoyable as Rego’s piece is, it pales somewhat by comparison.

On the contrary, “this juxtaposition of two supreme narrative paintings” marks a “marvellous moment”, said Jackie Wullschläger in the Financial Times, one that “celebrates art’s continuities, dialogues and reinventions”. Rego’s work is both “a magnificent decorative piece” and a “triumphant vision of female experience”. Look closely at the pictures within a picture, and you can read the mural as a series of exchanges, between Rego and Crivelli, and “more broadly” with the gallery’s collection. References to paintings within it abound, and some of her models were female members of the museum’s staff. “Crivelli’s Garden” is a work years ahead of its time. Seeing it afresh “raises our sense of Rego’s originality and impact higher than ever”.

National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885). Until 29 October. Free entry.