Portuguese-British Painter, Illustrator and Printmaker
Summary of Paula Rego
In Paula Rego's impressive oeuvre the contradictions of humanity are fully exposed; fantasy and reality, strength and suppression, and the personal and the political all writhe together in circling dialogue. She depicts the human figure predominately from life and thus allows her sitters to "flood you with their personality". Often groups of figures interact within Rego's pictures - usually made in pastel rather than paint - as a story with multiple strands mysteriously unfolds. Viewers do not really know what is happening, the action can be baffling, but there is always the sense that however unsettling, complex, and typically sexually charged, that like it or not, we all recognise the emotions at play. Similar to fellow portraitists of The London Group, and also to Alice Neel, Rego extracts individual psychology and dissects it. Her inclusion of props and animals however make her work more surreal, and her love of fabric and clothes as well as certain poses, look back to the classicism of the Old Masters.
- Rego celebrates a physical and individualistic way of being female. According to her Portuguese childhood, wealthy women were pressed to do nothing and working-class women to do everything. As such, not happy with either of these prescribed roles, the artist endeavored to be, and to depict a different type of woman. Presenting the antithesis of usual "feminine" behaviour, she made an iconic series of Dog Women. Here the bestial becomes a positive characteristic, and with similar intention to the Pendle Witch series, eccentric behaviour is encouraged and shown to be liberating, rather than as something to be feared and in turn repressed.
- Rego has successfully addressed two human experiences that although extremely widespread are almost entirely unrepresented. The first is abortion, and the other, depression. In 1998 Rego made a triptych that revealed women dealing with the consequences of illegal abortion. Addressing a pressing human rights issue, the series came about following a defeated referendum in Portugal that had sought to make abortion legal. The depression series is more recent, made in 2007; it makes visible an otherwise invisible emotion that can cripple and inactivate even the liveliest of spirits.
- Rego depicts war and the chaos of grotesque human behaviour en masse in the same way that artists of the New Objectivity movement did, including Otto Dix and George Grosz. The strong overtones of eroticism in the artist's work bring to mind the canvases of the French-Polish artist, Balthus, who similarly included ambiguous pre-pubescent girls. Indeed, Rego is an artist very well versed in the history of art. She recognises that the same themes - in particular the torments of love and war - are timeless strands of enquiry and as such yield the most interesting results.
- Rego was a dedicated member of The London Group, an independent organisation established as early as 1913 to help artists with practical matters, for example to secure exhibitions. This group is not to be confused with The School of London, an art term used to describe a group of figurative artists living and making work in London during the 1970s. Although Rego was not officially part of the latter movement, like other members, she was devoted to making the darkest and deepest of individual psychology visible.
Progression of Art
The Firemen of Alijo
This is an early example of Rego's collage work. Rego became interested in collage and large-scale painting from a young age, and began to combine at once abstract and figurative compositions with Surrealist technique. Inspired by the automatic experiments of the Surrealist Movement, Rego sought to free both herself and her practice from the constraints of tradition and rationality and to explore instead the unfettered and unconscious mind. In its richness of color and vivid kinetic energy, the picture not only recalls the canvases of Joan Miro (who Rego herself has quoted as an influence) but also seventeenth-century Indian illustrations of the epic Ramayana tale.
Created whilst Portugal was still ruled under the repressive regime of Salazar, this collage can be read as both as a political challenge and in turn as a re-imagining of hierarchy. There are many shapes that are almost human but not quite. They are twisted and undergoing various stages of metamorphosis, all squabbling, rising, and fighting for some sort of power. The transformation of different shapes into others also seems to pose questions about rigid boundaries - what is the self and what is other? Who has power and who is powerless? These questions, as well as the medium of the piece, recall work by Nancy Spero. Spero also created hybrid woman/animal figures and scattered them across the college plane. As well as exposing pain and suffering, both artists seek to protect and elevate their imaginary creaturely beings.
Acrylic paint, oil pastel, charcoal, graphite, resin, ink, paper and aluminium foil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
The Policeman's Daughter
In this striking painting, a young woman sits on a chair and polishes a brown boot. The boot looks to be part of the uniform of the military police of Salazar's Portugal. During the regime, Salazar maintained control of the country through the use of secret police, as well as police informers. Portuguese citizens lived in fear that their friends or neighbours would report them for dissident acts and that they would be taken away. Though this young woman may only be polishing the boot, this painting asks questions about collaboration - do we see her as equally to blame in her father's actions? Can she too be held responsible for crimes against humanity?
The domestic feel of the interior space, the bare white room and presence of a family cat also demonstrates how political power structures readily invade the home. Rego exposes how power and corruption can pervert and conquer even the most commonplace and innocent of activities. The young woman's face is passive and we do not get a sense of her agency; we can only note the act itself, as if the overachingly repressive regime has successfully eradicated active personality. Here the confines of the interior space are particularly surreal. The tight inclosing perspective makes the viewer feel claustrophobic and recalls works by Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte.
Oil on Canvas - Saatchi Gallery
Though titled The Dance, there is much more going on in this picture than a simple celebratory act. Rego depicts two dancing couples, a dancing trio, and a much larger single figure to the side. The people do not necessarily look like they are at the same party, let alone dancing to the same music. The couples seem mostly entwined, particularly the couple to the left of centre, dancing tightly together. The trio represents a profound illustration on the passing of time; a grandmother, mother, and daughter move gracefully together through the cycle of life. Indeed, there is a poignant comparison to be made with this painting and that of the Dance of Life, made by Edvard Munch in 1899. Like the Norwegian Expressionist, Rego too is interested in how human behaviour changes according to whether we are alone, in a couple, or part of a group. She also shares with Munch an interest in the passing from the state of innocence to experience, and in this particular case, to setting a scene at night, the prime time for unconscious musings.
British writer, Lisa Appignanesi comments, "Everything here may be homely, yet everything is simultaneously mysterious. Despite the smiles on the faces, things aren't quite right in Rego's world." This may be partly to do with the mismatch of the dancing individuals represented, but also because of the dark and looming background; the moon illuminates the beach scene and there is a dark fortress positioned on a hill that stands behind. As previously mentioned, during the Estado Novo, political dissidence was severely punished, often with imprisonment. Alternatively, the fortress could represent the pain that always accompanies the experience of joy. The painting was completely not long after Willing's death and he is the model for one of the male figures. The fortress then could be a monument to grief and mourning, and the painting a general homage to the journey and loss of love.
Acrylic paint on paper on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
The model in this painting is Lila Nunes, Rego's most important and long-standing artistic companion. In Dog Woman a woman crouches on all fours, bends down with her toothy mouth open; she is contorted, her neck bent, and her eyes roll back. It is a striking and bestial position, and one almost unrecognisable from the routine movements and gestures of "civilised" day-to-day living. However, this woman is not being punished or suppressed, quite the contrary, she appears entirely unselfconscious, as though in this new extreme physical state she can somehow shed normal social embarrassments and feel freer.
The art critic Jackie Wullschlage has suggested that Rego paints in the "Iberian tradition of painting fear", and as such she makes comparisons with this "painting" (made using pastels) and those by El Greco, Goya, and Picasso. Indeed, it seems that in many of her works, Rego explores how the human can be transformed out of its "normal" states and move into more empowered ways of being. Rego herself commented of this image, "To be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden; that has very little to do with it [...] In these pictures every woman's a dog woman, not downtrodden, but powerful. To be bestial is good. It's physical. Eating, snarling, all activities to do with sensation are positive. To picture a woman as a dog is utterly believable." Rego aims to capture a new bodily freedom found for women through the emulation of an animal.
Pastel on canvas - Saatchi Gallery
Dancing Ostriches is one of a large series of paintings that Rego made in which she depicted muscular, stocky women stretching and preparing their bodies for a ballet performance. The series has an interesting genesis, as it seems to have been inspired both by Edgar Degas's paintings of ballerinas (which was also a lengthy extended series), as well as by a scene in the Disney's Fantasia when a group of ostriches wearing blue bows and ballet slippers perform the Dance of the Hours. The artist is ever eclectic in her gathering of inspiration. Furthermore, considered alongside another pastel done at the same time, The Bride, the Dancing Ostriches are all dressed in black, whilst the The Bride appears all in white; the contrast once again revealing Rego's continuing interest in the opposing states of innocence and experience, and of life and death.
In this painting, the woman who looks Portuguese - due to her olive skin and black hair - sits on a reclining seat. Her pose is very exaggerated provoking questions about what is happening in the image: is she posing, or has Rego decided to capture her in a moment of stretching? In this position, we note that the ballerina is decidedly more powerful looking than a classic ballerina. As in Dog Woman, Rego depicts the female body as capable and strong; a body that asks not be judged, but to be accepted in its weighty, assured, and decidedly earthbound presence.
Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium - Saatchi Gallery
Come to Me
Rego has often discussed the influence that literature has had on her work. This lithograph is taken from a series made in response to Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre (1847). In her illustrations for the book, Rego reveals and meditates upon the unsettling nature of Jane Eyre's life, whilst also showing Eyre herself to be a strong and powerful individual. In the same series of prints, Rego also explores Jean Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). In combining both texts, Rego explores the complexity that underlies a single narrative. Writer and critic, Marina Warner comments that in this series Rego explores "the conditions of her own upbringing, her formation as a girl and woman, and the oscillation between stifling social expectations and liberating female stratagems".
Jane Eyre is a remarkable book because it gives readers an insight into the mind of a child; here, Rego seems to be attempting to represent that, in her depiction of the moment in which Jane Eyre is in the horrifying 'red room': we feel the profound fear that she felt at that moment, with the strange red background providing shocking contrast to her dark dress. Eyre's face is contorted, and her hands grab at her garment. Surprisingly though, there is nothing in the image that is particularly frightening in and of itself: the fear, we could say, is not there. Perhaps then, Eyre, like Rego, is profoundly scared of the abstract notion of fear itself. Interestingly, the work looks forward to and bears strong resemblance to a series of drawings made by the artist in 2007 that deal specifically with depression. These drawings too feature one large and weighty female figure. Both the woman in Come to Me, and those of the depression series recall Albrecht Dürer's figure of Melencolia in his famous 1514 engraving on the subject.
Although made many years later, this image is reminiscent of Rego's earlier political collages. There is a flurry of chaotic human activity and as in the early compositions the background and foreground merge whilst the absurd characters, part human and part creature, play out a tragic scene. In this seemingly unreal space, which is neither inside nor outside, there appears to be something unsettling going on: a woman holds an injured child, whilst two more children in the forefront seem to be pleading, crying, or running away. Most odd of all though, is that all of these mentioned figures wear rabbit masks. Identity is covered, even erased, as is the sad result of war.
The painting not only recalls grotesque scenes made by the likes of George Grosz and Otto Dix, The New Objectivity artists who made comment on the utter chaos of war time Germany. It also brings to mind the work of the Belgian painter and printmaker, James Ensor. Ensor, like Rego was interested in using masks and other elements of theatrical staging as a tool of contrast that in turn powerfully reveals the most real, and sometimes most disturbing of human behaviours and emotions. Both artists seem to convey that when a mask goes on, people really are capable and subject to the most terrible of horrors.
Rego herself has said that the image is a response to photographs published in newspapers during the early days of the Iraq War. Upon seeing the horrors of certain images, she decided, "I would do a picture about these children getting hurt, but I turned them into rabbits' heads, like masks. It's very difficult to do it with humans, it doesn't get the same kind of feel at all. It seemed more real to transform them into creatures". Indeed, in transforming people into animals, Rego considers how we place sympathy and furthermore, what capacity we have to deal with extreme inhumanity. Perhaps it becomes easier/possible to engage with tragedy only when images are transformed to give other dimensions to what is otherwise one dimensional and indigestible explicit violence.
Pastel on paper aluminium - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Biography of Paula Rego
Childhood and youth
Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935. She was an only child, her family was wealthy and as such she had a comfortable upbringing. Her father became an electrical engineer for the British firm Marconi but when Rego was born, he was still studying. In 1936, he decided to finish his studies in England and moved to the UK with his wife. The couple left Rego to be looked after by her grandmother, grandfather, and her great-grandfather who was a priest. Rego's parents moved back to Portugal when she was three years old and the family moved to Estoril, near Cascais. They bought a large house, with a big garden, but Rego was frightened of the outside at this point and preferred to stay inside and do drawings. Rego went to school and she was also home schooled. She was taught English by a lady who introduced her to imaginative English literature, including J.M. Barrie's story of Peter Pan. At age ten, she moved to a specialist English school in Portugal. It was called St Julian's, based in Carcavelos and Rego remained there from 1945 to 1951.
For all of Rego's childhood, Portugal was ruled under the fascist regime of Estado Novo. After a military coup in 1929, the country was led for almost 30 years by the dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. Thus although her home life remained secure the repressive regime loomed in the background and augmented a general anxiety in Rego; even as a child she used art as a means to create order and to escape from her fears. Her liberal family both recognised and opposed the confines of living in Portugal at this time and as such sent Rego to a finishing school in Kent, UK when she was 16.
From the finishing school she moved to The Slade School of Fine Art and studied there from 1952-1956. Here Rego was friend and contemporary to both Diana Cumming and Michael Andrews. Rego has described how she struggled to make accurate to scale drawings whilst at Art College . And though she was not one of the best-known students at the time, she did gain praise from those within her own art circle; in particular, the famous English landscape painter, L.S. Lowry, commented how much he liked her work. Most importantly, at The Slade, Rego met fellow student and artist, Victor Willing. Willing had been married to his long-time girlfriend Hazel Whittington since 1951 but he and Rego fell quickly and deeply in love and began an affair. When Rego went back to Portugal after the completion of her studies in 1956 she was pregnant with the couple's first child. Willing initially returned to his wife, leaving Rego alone to call upon the help of her parents. After a few months however, Willing decided differently and went to find Rego in Portugal. They were married in 1959, went on to have two more children and lived in Ericeria, Portugal, for seven years.
At this point in her artistic career, Rego principally made political collages that challenged authority and power structures. The collages resemble Indian illustrations of the epic Ramayana story, and also the work of the American artist, Nancy Spero. The work is rich and interesting but Rego remembers the period as one dominated by depression, noting in an interview, "I seized up and got into a terrible depression. I couldn't keep following the rules; I had to break out."
In 1962, Rego's father bought a house for his daughter and her family in London, and from this point forth the artist began to move between Ericeria and the new family home. Whilst in London Rego started to exhibit her work as part of The London Group. She was the only female artist at the time to show paintings alongside the likes of David Hockney and Frank Auerbach. Formed much earlier, in 1913, this artist-led and organised group was entirely democratic and apolitical and aimed to offer practical support to working artists. In 1965, Rego took part in a group show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London (ICA), called Six Artists, and in the same year had her first solo show in Lisbon at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes. These two exhibitions established Rego as a political and subversive artist, and also demonstrated the influence of Surrealism, and particularly of automatism and Joan Miro on her work.
1966 was a difficult year for both Rego and Willing; both of their fathers died, and Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In order to keep the Rego family business, Willing put his own art career on hold and took it over. Despite such efforts, the business collapsed in 1974 and the family returned to the UK, settling permanently in London in 1976. Though personally, this was a difficult and tumultuous period in Rego's life she still managed to have several solo shows both in Britain and Portugal during the 1970s. Though Rego was now settled in London, she continued to be heavily influenced by Portuguese politics, culture, and folklore: to Rego's mind, traditional folklore is not the twee or wholesome resource we might think of, but a collection of scary and terrible narratives that help to expose unconscious desires and shared malice. In 1973, Rego started to see a Jungian therapist regularly to help cope with her depression.
During the 1980s, many of Rego's paintings were highly erotic, exploring the complexities of female sexuality and the Freudian family drama. In 1987, she became represented by the Edward Totah gallery, and then subsequently by Marlborough Fine Art, who have represented her ever since. In 1988, Rego had her first major retrospective which travelled between the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Casa de Serralves, Oporto, and the Serpentine Gallery in London. By this point she had moved away from collage work completely and focused on figurative depictions using oil paint with clearer indications of narratives. In the touring 1988 exhibition, she exhibited many of her large-scale paintings, including some her most well known such as The Family (1988) and The Dance (1988). She became the first Associate Artist of the National Gallery, an artist-in-residence scheme through which she could undertake collaborative works with institutional support. During the residency she created a series of paintings and prints based on nursery rhymes, a long-standing favourite topic of hers. By this point Rego was a fully-fledged public figure in British cultural life, though her work always remained intimately involved with the politics and mythology of Portugal.
Later in the 1980s, Rego started to work regularly with life models. In particular, the artist has worked continuously with Lila Nunes who she uses as a stand in figure for her own self. Nunes came into Rego's life as a nurse in 1985 to help her take care of her husband, Willing in the final few years of his life. After many years struggling with his illness, Willing died in 1988. Nunes remained with Rego as her friend, artist companion, and primary model.
Rego continued to work and paint prolifically throughout the 1990s. By this point she had made the transition from paint to pastel. Rego said in interview, "Yes. Pastel, pastel, pastel, pastel, pastel [...] Never rubbing anything. Drawing, drawing, drawing [...] I don't like the wonkiness of the brush, I'm not mad about the lyrical quality of the brush. I much prefer the hardness of the stick [...] The stick is fiercer, much more aggressive."
During the 2000s she has made many print and drawing series. One notable series made in 2007 focuses entirely on the artist's long standing battle with depression. Over the past two decades the artist has become a highly distinguished and talented printmaker. She has said herself, "I turn to etching, and lithography, with a sense of exuberance and relief. In printmaking you can give your imagination full-range and see the results almost immediately. So one image triggers the idea for the next one and so on." Most recently she has been making exquisite etching and aquatints. These are typically both comical and political. Earlier motifs including masks, brides, and maids continue to appear today, and the artist often interweaves messages from contemporary existence, personal memory, and collective myths and fairytales.
Rego's work continues to challenge political narratives and to explore contemporary issues particularly those affecting women, such as reproductive rights and the refugee crisis. Robert Hughes, the esteemed art critic, calls her "the best painter of women's experiences alive today." Rego continues to live in Hampstead, North London, and travels regularly to her studio in Kentish Town.
The Legacy of Paula Rego
Rego is an incredibly important cultural figure in Portugal, considered to be one of the nation's most famous and influential artists. In 2004, she had another retrospective at the Serralves museum in Porto, which was so popular that it had to keep its doors open 24 hours a day. In 2009, she was honoured by her country of origin through the creation of The Paula Rego House of Stories, a dedicated museum built in Cascais, where she had spent much time as a child. The building was designed by the architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who seamlessly inserted an impressive contemporary structure into a beautiful natural setting. The museum houses many Rego works, as well as paintings by the artist's late husband, Victor Willing.
Internationally, the influence of Rego's work is greatly felt across contemporary painting, sculpture and printmaking. Artists who challenge traditional representations of the female body are particularly indebted to Rego, for example the British painter Jenny Saville. Saville presents a similar unapologetic and confrontational depiction of women. Similarly, though Cecily Brown's more abstracted work is also very different to Rego, her combination of figurative and abstract techniques have a similar lustre and energy. By way of closer comparison, both the artists Kiki Smith and Marcelle Hanselaar work regularly with the re-imagining and contemporary representation of old stories and fairy tales. Rego, for Smith and Hanselaar is a kindred spirit.
Rego's work is inspirational for all young artists in its thoroughness and rigour in the combination of many different influences and styles. She successfully gleans and learns from the Old Masters, Surrealism, literature, children's stories, and folklore. She successfully demonstrates that an artist's work is always made in profound conversation with the culture in which it is immersed. She powerfully suggests that all art and life is interrelated.