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Paula Rego London exhibition to celebrate Crivelli’s Garden

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

In July 2023, the National Gallery will open a new Paula Rego exhibition — the first significant show in London dedicated to the artist since her death. It will celebrate one of the most ambitious public commissions in Rego's career: Crivelli’s Garden.

The exhibition — which had long been planned in collaboration with Dame Paula Rego before her death on 8 June last year — will look back to her tenure as the National Gallery’s first Associate Artist, a position she held from 1990 to 1992. During her time in the role, she was invited to create a mural for the gallery’s Sainsbury Wing Dining Room. The resulting work was the monumental 10-metre-long mural titled Crivelli’s Garden. This new exhibition will reunite the mural with the 15th-century altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli that inspired it.

Rego’s Crivelli’s Garden is a tribute to storytelling and the strong women that surrounded Rego throughout her life. Representing female saints and mythological women and set within a maze-like Portuguese garden, the painting reimagines the narratives of these women to give them more power and visibility. The female figures in the work are not just reproductions of the women saints portrayed in paintings on show at the National Gallery, but they are inspired from real-life, including Rego’s friends, members of her family and even staff members at the Gallery. She held sittings with them to compete the work.

Two women talking on left of the painted panel with smaller figures depicted on the right in blue
Crivelli's Garden III, Paula Rego 1990-1 © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Photo: The National Gallery, London

The free exhibition, titled Crivelli’s Garden after the commission, will celebrate Rego’s close ties with the National Gallery and the importance of the work in her painting career. It will also reveal its legacy as an inspiration for new generations of artists.

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The work that inspired it is Carlo Crivelli La Madonna della Rondine (The Madonna of the Swallow) which was painted after 1490 for a family chapel in Matelica which is a small town in the Marches, Italy. Each of the five scenes of the panel is dedicated to a saint. Flanked at either end with depictions of Saint Catherine and Saint George, the stories of the Nativity, Saint Jerome and Saint Sebastian are shown in scenes with acute linear perspectives. Rego imagined a world in which Crivelli’s saints would co-exist within the same space and so decided to create her own version of the garden.

La Madonna della Rondine has been in the National Gallery collection since 1862, but it is not usually on display so this will be a rare opportunity to see it. An interesting feature of the work is that this painting is one of only three large Renaissance altarpieces in the gallery’s collection to be in its original frame.

Painting depicting the Madonna holding Christ in green robes and flanked by a man in red
La Madonna della Rondine (The Madonna of the Swallow) Carlo Crivelli after 1490 © The National Gallery, London

Throughout her career, Paula Rego challenged the dominance of the male gaze in Western art history and in Crivelli’s Garden she populated the scene with courageous female figures inspired by the Virgin Mary, Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, Saint Cecilia, Mary Magdalene, Judith and Delilah. They share the garden with other women from fables, biblical and mythological stories. Rego saw the work as a tribute to the artists who had also used the Golden Legend as a source for their paintings.

Dame Paula still held many drawings from the original sittings, and the exhibition will include a selection of these alongside sketches for the final piece from her personal collection. Visitors will enjoy a full examination of Rego’s creative process for this commission.

The commission for Crivelli’s Garden was an addition to her brief for the residency, in which she had been invited to produce new artworks inspired by the collection for her subsequent exhibition — Tales of the National Gallery — which was shown at the venue between December 1991 and March 1992.

In another exciting first, the accompanying catalogue will be the very first publication dedicated to the radical artwork and its celebration of storytelling. It will feature an original fictional work by acclaimed novelist Chloe Aridjis, written in response to Rego’s painting.

National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, said that “Dame Paula Rego loved being in the National Gallery’s artist studio and relished being able to spend many hours with the paintings. They triggered her memory and imagination and led to the creation of a work both joyous and unsettling.”

Priyesh Mistry, Associate Curator, Modern and Contemporary Projects at the Gallery, said that 'Crivelli’s Garden “remains as vital today as it was over 30 years ago” when it was first painted.

Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden will open at the National Gallery in London on 20 July 2023. Admission is free.


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