When the Portuguese town of Cascais wanted to build a museum to honour Paula Rego, the artist asked to call it ‘La Casa das Historias’ – The House of Stories.
It was a characteristic request. For Rego, art was a narrative act. “You should never do art,” she once said, “You should do a picture, a story about something.”
Rego’s own story began in Lisbon, where she was born in 1935, soon after the political ascent of António de Oliveira Salazar. Under Salazar, and his subsequent protégé Caetano, Rego’s childhood was marked by an increasingly repressive autocracy. Draconian censorship laws, a powerful secret police, and inhumane imprisonment quashed dissident voices.
Eager for her to leave this environment, Rego’s affluent and liberal parents sent her to study in Britain. In 1952, she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, graduating four years later into a post-war arts scene dominated by the figurative heavyweights of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
Rego shared their interest in the human body. But unlike Freud and Bacon, she was not so much interested in body as fleshy form – so long configured through the male artist’s gaze. Instead, she was interested in bodies as the sites and actors of stories. In her work, bodies are to be read: for their internal narratives, and for the narratives that evolve between them.
Often, Rego drew upon pre-existing stories. Nursery rhymes, fairy and folk tales, poems, novels, and plays all made their way into her work – from Peter Pan and Pinocchio to Snow White and Jane Eyre. As she reimagined these familiar tales in visual form, Rego honed in on female experience, as well as on uncomfortable dynamics of power, violence, and desire.