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Paula Rego and the power of paint

Posted on 23 Jan 2020

Paula Rego's visual stories of power, desire, and transgression are more relevant and raw than ever.

© 2019 Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

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, who turns 85 this month, art has long been 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 draws upon pre-existing stories. Nursery rhymes, fairy and folk tales, poems, novels, and plays have all made their way into her work ­­– from Peter Pan and Pinocchio to Snow White and Jane Eyre. As she reimagines these familiar tales in visual form, Rego hones in on female experience, as well as on uncomfortable dynamics of power, violence, and desire.

© 2019 Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Though there is no taut biographical thread, Rego’s work also weaves allusions to her own childhood, her emerging sexuality, abortion, pregnancy, marriage. Each of these episodes become, in the words of Deryn Rees-Jones, a “flash-point for her evolving exploration of the complex mesh of forces that constitute what it means to be a woman in the world.”

Never one to shy away from the difficult or disturbing, Rego’s work dealt with rape, coercion, abortion, depression, honour killings, and female genital mutilation – sometimes long before these topics became mainstream talking points.

In particular, Rego has long given visibility to abortion rights. In 1998, her harrowing series, Untitled: Abortion, showed women undergoing illegal abortions. As they lean back, spread their legs, and contort and cower on couches, the figures’ arrested movements of physical and psychic pain also recall the motions of childbirth, sexual submission, or even sexual pleasure, dramatizing the pain and shame that a legal system can compound around the female body and sexuality.

© 2019 Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Then there are the artistic strands to Rego’s stories. Velásquez, Tintoretto, Goya, Manet, Dubuffet, Degas are just a few of the painterly predecessors who speak through her work, particularly after her appointment as the first associate artist at the National Gallery in London in 1990. During this period of residence, Rego evolved various strategies of copying and quotation, discovering new ways to experiment with a sense of time, and to hold depth in a single image.

As Rego layers these personal, political, and artistic references, she creates what Timothy Hyman called “a new kind of history painting” – one that resists sequential time and linear succession. Her stories adamantly refute the neat narrative, insisting instead upon ambiguity and discomfort, relishing scenes that teeter between tenderness and horror.

It is never simple. Her work explores the anguish of oppression, certainly, but also the masochistic pleasures of submission. It probes uncomfortable urges towards voyeurism and humiliation and scorches familial scenarios with eroticism. In the words of poet Marina Warner, it holds a “ferocious impulse to utter what is most often only muttered behind twitched curtains”.

© 2019 Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

As Rego ruptures taboo and insists on instability and contradiction, multitudes of potential meanings unfold from her work. Her pictures become a place from which we stake out our own stories: between what we feel is happening, has happened, or is about to happen – and all the complex emotions those happenings might provoke. For Deryn Rees-Jones, it is work in which feeling is allowed its “full repertoire of contradiction”. As Rego herself has put it, “there’s always a twist, isn’t there?”

© 2019 Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Rego’s career has similarly resisted any neat classification into a group, school, or style. “Hers has always been a very personal practice”, says Max Levai, president of Marlborough Gallery, Rego’s long-time representative. Back in the 1970s, she battled for acknowledgement with her political engagement. “She was constantly pressured to change her approach, but that was never a question for her,” Levai says. For Rego, success was “a long time coming”.

© 2019 Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Today, the artist has a damehood, six honorary degrees, multiple prizes, and the La Casa das Historias Museum to her name. Post #MeToo, her corporeal, unflinching examination of sex, power, possession and transgression have found ever greater immediacy and relevance. In 2018, Milton Keynes Gallery held a blockbuster retrospective of her work. Last year, Marlborough Gallery devoted its entire Art Basel stand to Rego’s new series of sculptures. For 2021, Tate Britain has announced a major survey exhibition of her paintings, drawings, and prints as part of its #5WomenArtists campaign.

But in the same period of heightened fame, Rego herself has aged. Though still making work, her son, the filmmaker Nick Willing, has noticed his mother becoming “more fragile, forgetful, and vulnerable”. In 2018, she described herself as “very, very old”.

Her main complaint, characteristically, was not one of physical decline, but of depleted narrative: “I have no story right now”, she said.

© 2019 Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Wordy by Eliza Apperly

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