Paula Rego and the Problem of Evil: a Talk by Ronald Hünneman

If God is good, all powerful and present everywhere, how can there be evil in this world? This question has fascinated Western philosophers over centuries. In his Touched by Art talk, Ronald Hünneman connects this ancient question with the figurative art of Paula Rego.

Ronald Hünneman during his talk about Paula Rego

But first, who is Rego? She is praised in her home country Portugal, where a museum is dedicated to her work, and famous in the UK, where she lived most of her life. However, many Dutch people never heard of her. A large solo exhibition organized in Kunstmuseum Den Haag brought change to this. It presents more than 70 pastels, paintings and drawings of Rego. Hünneman visited this exhibition and was ‘blown away’.

Rego’s work does not shy away from physical violence. She depicts women in pain, right after their illegal abortion, people being beaten up, castrated, or sexually abused. The disturbing thing, however, is that it these figures are never clearly framed as victims.

‘Submissiveness can be powerful’ observes Hünneman about the series ‘Dog Girls’, where women follow up orders in the bedroom like dogs. In the documentary Paula Rego, Secrets & Stories (2017), Rego explains that she made this series in memory of her husband Victor Willing, not long after he died from MS. When they first met, he ordered her to take down her panties and have sex with him. Rego describes it in a neutral way: that was how it was. He did not even bother to take me home afterwards, she adds. The way she tells it is disturbing. Not because of the violent behavior of Willing per se, but because of the tone of her voice. She neither condemns it, nor praises it. Or, perhaps it is both at the same time. It is puzzling that she seems to honor Willing after his dead with these scenes of violent sexual behavior.

The line I quoted of Hünneman can be disturbing as well. Calling submissiveness powerful can easily be misunderstood as an anti-feminist message of framing women as being secretly happy in a position of suppression and abuse. This is, however, not what is at stake here. Hünneman, following Rego, does not re-establish an image of the man who acts and the woman who passively follows. He deconstructs the idea of passive submissiveness altogether by pointing at the possible physical strength and will power in it. The women of Rego – this is no general statement – are not passively undergoing an activity, they are actively taking part in it.

So, back to the problem of evil. In a crash course, Hünneman explains multiple ways in which philosophers have looked at good and evil throughout the ages. Good and evil were seen as two forces – God against the devil. But again, how can that be true if God is all-powerful? So evil was described as the absence of goodness, the vacuum of God. It was seen as an aberration of goodness, its excess, wrong proportion. Until Mark Rowlands came along. Revolutionary about the philosophy of this contemporary British thinker, is that he stopped framing good and evil as opposite forces. His example of the ultimate deed of Luc Skywalker, killing his father in Star Wars, suggest that good and evil might sometimes be the same thing.

Hünneman talk shows  that Rego’s art could set an even better example of this view. One might even ask if the words good and evil are applicable to her work. The women Rego painted in her Abortion Series, for instance, are fascinating because of their layered expression. They clearly go through a lot of pain, but there is also a hint of pride, strength and survival in them. By portraying these women not simply as sufferers, Rego goes beyond the classical abortion-debate in which women are either victims or perpetrators. Here, instead of a clear-cut order of good and evil, we see multiple forces simultaneously.

Hünneman concludes his talk with the paradoxical phrase ‘doing evil can sometimes be the ultimate good’. It is an unfortunate expression that brings back the duality of good and evil, one of the participants points out. Hünneman agrees with her. ‘That is the problem of language’, he adds. This final comment suggests that in order to find answers to the problem of evil, out of philosophy and art, art is the one to pick.

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