This Sunday (24th October) marks the end of the UK’s largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Paula Rego. Thousands of people have visited Tate Britain to view the exhibition, with tickets regularly selling out each day. Yet, Paula Rego is not a well-known name amongst the average Londoner, so the popularity of the temporary display of work was surprising. Rego is a Portuguese-British visual artist whose work style has evolved from Abstract to Representational over her sixty-year career. Her imaginative power has revolutionised how women are represented in art, and her work often reflects feminism alongside folk themes from her native Portugal.
Paula Rego was born on 26th January 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, the Estado Novo (New State) controlled the country, suppressing political freedom and drastically limiting the rights of women. Rego’s anti-fascist father and mother moved to England in 1936 for work, leaving the young Paula in Portugal with her grandmother. Rego learned many Portuguese folk-tales from her grandmother, many of which later made their way into her artwork.
Rego’s parents returned to Portugal in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. They had become Anglophiles during their time in England and sent their daughter to the English-speaking Saint Julian’s School in Carcavelos. Rego attended Saint Julian’s from 1945 until 1951, after which her parents sent her to England to a finishing school in Sevenoaks, Kent.
Noticing Rego was unhappy at the finishing school, her British guardian, David Phillips, helped her gain a place at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, which she attended until 1956. Rego had started drawing as a child, but this marked a turning point in her life. Through her studies, Rego developed her skills as an artist. She also began an affair with a fellow student, Victor Willing (1928-88). Rego allegedly had several abortions during their affair because Willing, married to Hazel Whittington at the time, threatened to abandon her and return to his wife if she kept the child.
Following the conclusion of her studies, Rego moved to Ericeira, Portugal, in 1957, where she decided to carry her latest pregnancy to full term. Willing eventually joined her after the birth of their child and officially divorced his wife in 1959. The couple married the same year and had two more children. They divided their time between Portugal and Britain, where Rego purchased a house in Camden Town, London.
Rego’s art career officially began in 1962, when she began exhibiting with The London Group, an art society based in London. Founded in 1913, many British artists have joined as members, including Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Sir Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), David Hockney (b. 1937), L. S. Lowry (1887-1976), and Walter Sickert (1860-1942). In 1965, she took part in the Six Artists exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.
During the 1960s and 70s, Rego produced collages made from fragments of newspapers, magazines and drawings. She looked at newspaper articles, proverbs and children’s stories for inspiration, but also focused on her experiences. The Firemen of Alijo (1966), for example, was inspired by a group of firemen she saw in Alijo, Portugal, while staying with her parents in 1965. It was winter, her father was terminally ill with cancer, there was no heating in the house, and everyone felt grumpy. While wandering around the town, Rego noted how poor the area was and saw a group of firemen huddled together to keep warm. They were unpaid volunteers with soot-stained skin and no shoes on their feet. She produced The Firemen of Alijo in homage to them.
Most of the collaged fragments of The Firemen of Alijo are drawings, which Rego cut up and stuck onto a painted canvas. The abstract firemen have strange body features, such as a badger’s head and a seal’s tail. Bird-like figures represent fighting angels, which Rego included to represent the medieval history of the town of Alijo. For many people, the artwork looks like an abstract assortment of shapes and lines, but for Rego, it depicts human emotions, nightmares and desires. Rego paints “to give terror a face”.
Between 1971 and 1978, Rego produced artwork for seven solo shows in Portugal. These included a series of illustrations of traditional Portuguese folk tales. She continued the surrealist tradition of combining fragments, fine art and popular culture to create abstract scenes, which meant more to the artist than the viewer. Around this time, Rego experienced Jungian therapy, which made her more aware of the influences on human behaviour. Through her collages, she tried to show the emotions the characters were feeling as well as why they felt that way.
Rego abandoned collage in the 1980s and started making bold paintings with thick outlines. Many artworks from this era feature animals with human characteristics. Whilst the caricature-like figures appear more playful, they explore the darker, emotional side of human relationships. Several of Rego’s paintings from the early 1980s reflect her childhood and experiences.
Paula Rego once stated, “to do a picture I always need a story to start with, although as I go along the story may change or the picture may change.” Nanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman (1982) is based on the autobiography of Elias Canetti (1905-94), a German author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. Canetti wrote about his childhood nanny, whose boyfriend threatened to cut out Canetti’s tongue. In Rego’s painting, the bogeyman, on the left, is the boyfriend, and the young Canetti is the small bear. The nanny holds the small bear, preventing him from escaping. Rego interpreted the nanny as the evil character in the story because she did nothing to protect the little bear from her boyfriend.
In 1984, Rego made independent and rebellious girls the main subjects of her artwork. Women in Portugal had very little freedom of expression under the fascist dictatorship of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970). Rego depicted these women, some more subtly than others, rebelling against the oppression. She also expressed female sexual desire, which may stem from her husband’s many affairs during their marriage. During the 1980s, Victor Willing became increasingly unwell with multiple sclerosis and could no longer provide Rego with physical love.
During the 1980s, Rego had a series of solo exhibitions in London, Bristol and Portugal. Her paintings of rebellious women were featured in retrospectives at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1988. In the same year, Victor Willing passed away, and Rego completed one of her largest artworks, The Dance. Rego hoped to include The Dance in the exhibitions but, due to circumstances beyond her control, did not finish it on time.
As well as The Dance, Tate Britain displayed several preparatory drawings, which Rego donated to the gallery when they purchased the painting in 1989. Rego experimented with several combinations of dancing figures, including seven women jubilantly jumping around. The final composition features eight figures of various ages dancing on a moonlit beach. Several critics have developed explanations for the scene, including the cycle of femininity and Portuguese folk festivals. The fortress-like structure resembles a military fort on the Estoril coast in Caxias, used as a prison and torture site during the rule of Estado Novo.
In 1990, Rego became the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London. Eight years after her residency, the gallery asked her to produce something that responded to a painting in the National Gallery. Rego chose a cycle of paintings by William Hogarth (1697-1764) called Marriage-A-la-Mode, which told a tale of arranged marriage, betrayal and death. Rego reworked the story to resemble the Portuguese culture and memories of her youth. Whilst Hogarth’s narrative contained six canvases, Rego limited herself to three, creating a triptych for the National Gallery’s Encounters: New Art from Old exhibition in 2000.
The first panel of the triptych, The Betrothal, shows two mothers discussing the future marriage of their young children. The adolescent boy clutches at his mother as though scared about the prospect of marriage. The little girl, on the opposite side of the painting, slouches in her chair, bored with the conversation. Neither boy nor girl has any say in the matter about their future. The middle panel, Lessons, is based on Hogarth’s fourth panel, The Toilette. Instead of a dressing room, Rego painted a beauty parlour where the girl, now a teenager, watches her mother have her hair done. Rego described the scene as an apprenticeship in femininity, a lesson about how to be a woman.
The final panel, The Shipwreck, represents Hogarth’s fifth scene, The Bagnio. In Hogarth’s story, the husband falls to the ground after being shot by his wife’s lover. In Rego’s version, the boy, now a married man, has frittered away all his money. He is literally being supported by his wife, the girl in the previous paintings, whose meagre belongings are scattered around the room. The woman stares into the distance, contemplating an uncertain future as this destitute man’s wife.
Before appropriating Hogarth’s narrative paintings, Rego based many of her work during the early 1990s on nursery rhymes and stories. Her Nursery Rhymes series of prints was later published as a book. Following the traditions of earlier artists such as Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Rego created a fantastic realistic illustration for each nursery rhyme, often dressing animals up as humans. Yet, as is the nature of some rhymes, there is a hint of the sinister in her drawings. Rego produced prints of 26 nursery rhymes, including Three Blind Mice, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Hey Diddle Diddle, Little Miss Muffet, The Grand Old Duke of York, and Polly Put the Kettle On.
As well as nursery rhymes, Rego explored the darker side of fairy tales, such as Pinocchio, Peter Pan and Snow White. When Rego watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as a child, she described it as “like discovering a new world”. Yet, it is also a frightening story for young viewers, where good and evil coexist in a disturbing atmosphere. Whilst the seven dwarfs are playful, the evil queen plots murder.
The stories of Pinocchio and Peter Pan are equally disturbing. Rego took inspiration from Disney’s version of The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1826-90), in which unruly children are punished, transformed into donkeys and sold into slavery. In Peter Pan, written by J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), lost children wind up on a desert island where pirates wish to kill their eponymous leader. Rego also produced artwork based on adult works of fiction, such as Haunted by Joyce Carol Oates (b.1938) and The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).
In 1994, Rego started focusing, once again, on female figures. Her style had drastically changed since the 1970s, going from collages to almost realistic paintings. With pastels, Rego painted independent women who broke stereotypes and did not cater for the male gaze. Rego began working with the model Lila Nunes and produced a series called Dog Women, in which the sitter demonstrated primal needs and emotions.
Another series, Bride, focused on the sexual side of a marital contract. Instead of Nunes, Rego used her daughter Victoria as the model. The paintings show a less aggressive emotional state than Dog Women. Still wearing her wedding dress, the bride waits for her husband after the wedding ceremony but with no sense of joy or anticipation.
Without collage or surrealism to hide behind, Rego’s artwork became more shocking and raw. In 1998, she painted an untitled series depicting women in the aftermath of illegal abortions in Portugal. At the time of painting, women were not allowed to have abortions except for medical reasons; those who did faced up to three years in prison. Around the same time, Rego painted a series based on The Crime of Father Amaro by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz (1845-1900), which portrayed women as the victims of abuse at the hands of men.
In the 2000s, Rego’s art style changed again. Using props, live models and handmade “dollies”, Rego set up scenes in her studio, which she then drew in pastel. Many works from this period return to Rego’s memories of Portugal, particularly dictatorship, war, and the treatment of women. Others were inspired by contemporary news items, such as the war in Iraq, which began in 2003. A photograph of a screaming girl in a white dress running from an explosion published in the Guardian newspaper at the beginning of the war inspired one of Rego’s paintings.
“I thought 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.” Simply titled War, Rego transformed the Guardian‘s photo into a scene of rabbits and other hybrid creatures. This echoes some of her previous work, for instance, Nursery Rhymes, featuring anthropomorphic characters.
War was first shown at the Marlborough Gallery, London, as part of an exhibition called Jane Eyre and Other Stories, in October 2003. The following year, Royal Mail commissioned Rego to create a set of Jane Eyre stamps. These saw a return to the style of prints Rego produced in the early 1990s.
Rego’s most recent works focus on abusive acts, such as the trafficking of women, female genital mutilation, and other appalling news stories. These artworks are hard to look at and study for any length of time, which reflects people’s reactions to reading and hearing about such abuse. It is difficult to understand why people commit these horrific acts, and Rego wishes to open the public’s eyes, hoping someone, anyone, will do something about it.
The exhibition at Tate Britain is the largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Paula Rego’s work to date. Yet, at 86, Rego is still producing art, so there could well be a larger exhibition in the future. As a result of her work, Rego has received honorary degrees from the Winchester School of Art, the University of St Andrews, the University of East Anglia, the Rhode Island School of Design, the London Institute, the University of Oxford and Roehampton University. In 2010, Rego was made a Dame of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.