Paula Rego is unarguably the most famous Portuguese artist outside of Portugal, particularly in the United Kingdom where she has mainly lived since 1951. She was born in Lisbon in 1935 and grew up in a wealthy family during the years of the dictatorship. Her father was a liberal and Anglophile who decided to send her to England to attend a finishing school and in 1952 to the Slade School of Art, where she studied under Lucian Freud and L.S. Lowry, among others. It was here she met her future husband, the artist Victor Willing (1928-88), with whom she divided her time between Ericeira in Portugal (a coastal town north-west of Lisbon) and London in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s before permanently settling in London.
Her early works were overtly political in theme, criticizing the rightwing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, and throughout the 1960s she created a number of, often impenetrable, works in which she experimented with collage and mixed media. In the surrealist painting entitled Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960) the dictator is depicted as a shape on the left of the picture being sick while in the centre of the painting is another shape of a woman made up of what appears to be pubic hair and holding a shield. The equally abstract triptych, When we had a house in the country we’d throw marvellous parties and then we’d go out and shoot negroes (1961), is a satirical reaction to Portuguese colonialism during the dictatorship and depicts a party scene in a white colonial house while outside white soldiers are killing the indigenous people as much for sport as for war. Using cut-out paper stuck on a blue background Regicide (1965) conveys the chaos that ensued during the assassination of the Portuguese King Carlos I and his eldest son, who were shot as they rode through the Praça do Comércio in Lisbon in a carriage in 1908. The carriage is the most recognisable item in the confusion. The Firemen of Alijo (1966) is an abstract reaction, using collaged fragments from other drawings stuck on a deep red background, to the extreme poverty Rego witnessed in northern Portugal one very cold winter, including seeing a group of firemen standing barefoot in the snow. In the picture she depicts characters comprised of human and animal body parts. Surprisingly, many of these controversial works were shown in an exhibition in Lisbon in 1965.
In 1998 Rego created a socially and politically motivated serious of paintings and drawings around the theme of abortion. These works came after Portugal had held a referendum about whether to legalize abortion or not in which people had not gone out to vote and so abortion remained illegal. Rego, who openly admits to having had abortions herself during her time at the Slade, as well as witnessing the desperate circumstances of poor women in Ericeira in the 1950s and 1960s, who would beg for money to have backstreet abortions, wanted to make people aware of the reality of abortion and made etchings of the paintings and drawings so that they could be shown throughout the country and seen by people who wouldn’t normally see art. In the paintings and drawings Rego deliberately avoided showing blood and gore, but instead focused on the complex emotional impact on the women; in each work there is a solitary woman shown in a room of a house during or just after a backstreet abortion; some of the woman have a look of pain while others look numb and other defiant. A second referendum was held in 2007 and in the lead up to the referendum the etchings appeared in some newspapers. This time the referendum was successful and abortion was finally legalized.
In 2009 Rego took on another taboo theme, that of female genital mutilation, creating nightmarish etchings with aquatint which depict monster-like women performing acts of violence on girls, such as Mother Loves You (2009), where the perpetrator is shown with jaw-like genitals with sharp teeth and Night Bride (2009) where two women hold the girl down while another is about to violate her.
Rego created War (2003) after seeing a photograph of a girl in a white dress running away from an exploding bomb in Basra, Iraq. The picture, done in pastel, contains violent images including the central image of a human figure with a rabbit’s head wearing a blue dress carrying a smaller figure wearing a pink dress, whose head is that of a rabbit covered in blood. In the foreground is a stork about to pierce the neck of another rabbit dressed in a pink girl’s dress and there is a miniature woman in a soldier’s uniform holding a stick, while in the background is a dog fighting an ant of the same size. This painting embodies a lot of the themes and imagery that Rego has used throughout her career.
In contrast to the political works, Rego’s art is often personal, with scenes based on memories from her childhood or aspects of her adult life. It is not surprising to learn that she has been having Jungian psychoanalysis since 1973 and based on the idea that images from childhood are deeply buried in the subconscious she uses stories to access these images and make sense of the world. The surrealist Self-portrait in Red (1962) (shown above) contains autobiographical elements far removed from traditional self-portraits. The background is bright red with a collage of fragmented images painted or glued on, including a figure of a young girl in the centre surrounded by images of grotesque children’s story-like characters. The very personal Depression Series (2007) was created during a bout of severe depression that Rego suffered in 2007 and the works were finally put on public display in 2017. Done largely in black pastel, they are a powerful and frank depiction of the darkness of depression and, as with the abortion and female genital mutilation series, Rego hopes to make the public aware of the issue and remove the stigma of depression.
A dominant, recurring theme in Rego’s work is family relationships. These works depict scenes heavy with symbolism that leave a sense of unease and conflicting emotions. She painted two of her most significant works in the late eighties, The Maids (1987) and The Family (1988). In her later works she uses a more figurative style in which women are often portrayed with manly features and the themes of domination, sexuality, fear and grief recur. The Maids is based on a play, Les Bonnes (The Maids, 1947) by Jean Genet, in which the maids murder their mistress. Rego’s painting sets the scene in a mid-twentieth century Portuguese middle-class bedroom laden with symbolic imagery, where the maids’ actions are ambiguous, but give rise to a sense of menace. In the unsettling painting entitled The Family, painted as Willing was dying, the mannequin-like man is seated on the bed being dressed, undressed or even sexually abused by two of the three females in the room. The characters are distorted and complex emotions, ranging from tenderness to anger, are suggested.
Rego has described herself as a ‘feminist’ artist and in her art she is not afraid to reveal the female condition through her female central characters. They are often depicted as large women with male features, as in the female painter in Joseph’s Dream (1990), a painting which reverses the traditional role of male painter and reclining female model; the central figure of The Cake Woman (2004); and Dancing Ostriches (1995), in which, influenced by Walt Disney’s animal dance sequence in Fantasia, Rego portrays stocky women in black tutus attempting balletic poses. She often uses the same sitter, Lila Nunes, as her model.
Other female characters, painted as glamorous women in fashionable clothes and with expensive hairstyles, are based on the middle-class women Rego remembers from her childhood and they represent the wicked mother or step-mother who is trying to arrange a suitable marriage for her daughter, as in Snow White and her Stepmother (1995), where the daughter is subjected to the humiliation of the stepmother removing the girl’s knickers, presumably in preparation for marriage. In 1999 she painted a series inspired by Hogarth’s mid-18th century depiction of an arranged marriage, ‘Marriage à la Mode’, but relocated it to a 1940s or ’50s middle-class Portuguese setting. Rego’s work is divided into three parts, The Betrothal, in which two well-dressed women plan the marriage of their respective children; Lessons, showing the mother, sitting under a hairdryer in a beauty salon, giving her daughter (still a child) lessons in marriage; and The Shipwreck, which shows the married couple years later living in obvious poverty with the wife holding the enfeebled husband on her lap.
In the 1980s she began to use anthropomorphic animals in her paintings, which allowed her to convey parts of her private life. In the ‘Red Monkey’ series she reveals the complications of her marriage through the characters of a monkey (representing Willing), a bear (representing the writer and close friend of Rego, Rudolf Nassauer) and a dog (representing Rego), such as in Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove (1981) and Wife Cuts of Red Monkey’s Tail (1981). Later in the decade she began the ‘Girl and Dog’ series, which was done around the time Willing was ill with multiple sclerosis and in which he is depicted as a dog being cared for or threatened, such as Two Girls and a Dog (1987).
In the 1990s she began the ‘Dog Women’ series, in which she depicted women in dog-like poses, although she had been using this dog imagery since her time at the Slade School, for example, Dog Woman (1952). The ‘Dog Woman’ series, done in chalk pastels, represents the relationship of animal and master, where women are depicted in dog-like poses. In Bride (1994), the frame is dominated by a reclining woman dressed in a beautiful white silk wedding dress who is looking directly at the viewer as if to ask them to rub her tummy, while in Lush (1994) and Sleeper (1994) a sleeping female figure dominates the frame. There is an intimacy to the portrayal of the woman in Lush, who is dressed in a petticoat and is sleeping with her legs apart, while in Sleeper there is an ambiguity to whether the way the woman is sleeping (lying on a man’s jacket) is a sign of loyalty to her master or a punishment. Sit (1994) is a more unsettling picture, as the pregnant woman is shown seated in an armchair with her arms behind her, her feet crossed uncomfortably and her head turned at an awkward angle.
Many of Rego’s works are reinterpretations of myths, works of literature and children’s stories. In 1989 (during which time (1989-1990) she was Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London) Rego created a series of etchings with aquatint in which she subverted the seemingly innocent subject matter of nursery rhymes and created something much darker, such as in Polly Put the Kettle On (1989), where two women, who fill the space of the etching, serve tea to a group of doll-like soldiers.
In 1997 she created a series of paintings inspired by the famous Portuguese novel by Eça de Queiros, O Crime do Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro, 1875) which tells the story of a priest who falls in love with the daughter of his landlady. Ideas inspired by the novel, rather than depictions of scenes, include The Cell (1997), in which Father Amaro lies on a campbed under which is a figure of the Virgin Mary and over which he appears to be masturbating; The Company of Women (1997), which conveys a memory Father Amaro has of being cosseted as a boy by the housemaids, but here he is shown as a man and the adoration of the women takes on a sexual tone as Amaro looks knowingly out at the viewer; and one of Rego’s most famous paintings, Angel (1998), in which Rego creates an avenging angel holding a sponge in one hand and a sword in the other to exact retribution for the death of one of the characters.
In 2001-2 she created a series of unorthodox lithographs, with sexual subtext, based on another classic 19th-century novel, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), six of which were turned into British postage stamps in 2005.
Rego’s work often disturbs or shocks whether as political and social comment or through her inward-looking and autobiographical content, but throughout there is always a sense of defiance. Highly respected in Portugal and the United Kingdom, she received the Grã-Cruz da Ordem Militar de Sant’Iago (Grand Cross of the Military Order of Saint James of the Sword) from the President of Portugal in 2004 and was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2010 for her services to art. Many of her paintings, etchings and drawings, along with paintings by Victor Willing, are now permanently housed in the Casa das Histórias Paula Rego in Cascais, which opened in 2009. The collection is housed in a distinctive red building with twin pyramid-shaped towers designed by Eduardo Souto de Moura.
Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Avenida da República, Cascais.
Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am-6pm. Entrance: €5.