The vital importance of humour in Paula Rego’s art | Paula Rego

I greatly appreciated your coverage of the death of the artist Paula Rego, especially the fine tribute by Jonathan Jones (‘She is dancing among the greats’, 8 June). There are so many sometimes contradictory layers of meaning in Rego’s art that there will surely never be a definitive interpretation of her work. Nevertheless, I was glad that Jones mentioned her jokes. It really struck me quite forcefully how important humour is in her work when I recently saw a superb Rego retrospective in the Picasso Museum in Málaga, Spain.

With that in mind, I somewhat disagree with Jones’s interpretation of Rego’s masterpiece The Family, which depicts a mother and daughter forcefully dressing the father like a rag doll. It’s undoubtedly based on the grim reality of Rego’s husband suffering from multiple sclerosis, for which she nursed him for several difficult years. Jones sees in the painting the mother resentfully thinking, despite herself, “when will this be over?” Having a comparable neurological disorder, Parkinson’s disease, plus, similarly, a wife and daughter who sometimes provide assistance getting me dressed, I see the three of them not so much consumed with bitterness but laughing together at the fates, defying the awful absurdity of their situation. Of course, I may be deluding myself over the loving support I get from my family, but that too could provide another legitimate reading of the painting.
Giles Oakley
East Sheen, London

Adrian Searle suggests that Dame Paula Rego could “indulge in a kind of knockabout buffoonery” (‘She could make anything part of a story’, 9 June). Having worked with Paula on an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in 2002, I got to know her and her work well, and think that this is a misreading.

Paula had a very rich sense of humour, but she also had a profound understanding of evil and suffering. The humour in her works operates in the tradition of European visual satire exemplified by Goya and Hogarth, artists she admired greatly, and is always dark, complex and disquieting, hinting at the collapse of societal norms rather than “knockabout buffoonery”.
Gillian Forrester
Pembridge, Herefordshire

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