A large mural commissioned by the National Gallery for a specific location is currently on display in the wrong location, but for the right reason.
In 1990, the National Gallery appointed the Portugese born but London resident artist, Paula Rego as their first Associate Artist, with her own studio within the gallery with a fairly broad remit to “do something”. Inspired by religious painting by the fifteenth-century artist, Carlo Crivelli, she created her own vastly larger reinterpretation, and where Crivelli painted saints, Rego painted her friends and the people who worked in the gallery at the time. The huge mural – technically a series of canvases — more than 9 metres long was unveiled in 1991 in the Sainsbury Wing’s new public dining room as a monumental work of art.
Now, 30 years later, as the Sainsbury Wing is being redeveloped that means there’s a chance to let non-diners see the mural as well.
It’s a fascinating painting and one that rewards both standing back to take in the whole, but with so many jokes and subtle notes in the painting one that can be studied for ages and you’ll likely still not see them all.
The artist herself sits in a corner, a notepad on her lap leaning in as if listening to the conversation going on around.
The tiles are blue on white, in a style similar to her home in Portugal, and there are some folktales in the decoration – do look for the tortoise and hare in one or the three-headed dog surrounded by giant frogs in another. And spot the two angels with cudgels chasing after a demon who’s just darting out of sight behind a rock.
Above the fountain, literally taking the bull by the horns is a reversal of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Zeus takes the form of a bull to entice the princess Europa.
Most of the characters, all real-life people are representations of female saints, but also painted totally out of proportion to each other, distorting the view and confusing the perspective.
A huge Mary Magdalene sits pensively in a niche, while Ruben’s painting of Samson and Delilah is reversed with a predatory Delilah leaning over the slumbering Samon. Elsewhere, St Martha is shown sweeping the floor, while Mary Magdalene sits in contemplation — the contrasts reflecting the dual notions of the merits of labour and of thinking.
One niggle about the exhibition is that it really could have done with a diagram in the room explaining who each of the characters in the painting are representations of. There is a QR code with a link to a webpage with the key to the characters, but it’s a bit of a task to view it on a smartphone.
In a corner of the room is the 15th-century altarpiece that inspired the 20th-century mural, placed together for the first time. There are also a number of Paula Rego’s sketches of the gallery staff that she made in her studio and were to later feature in the mural.
It’s a mural that you can glance at, but if you look closely at the many little jokes in there, you’ll leave the room with a smile. Once only seen by people in the dining room, now for a few months, anyone can see it.
Sadly, Paula Rego died last year, but she knew her painting would be on display in the public gallery. You can find it in Room 46, which is next to the gallery’s portico entrance.