I want to share an exhibition I saw recently that blew me away: the Paula Rego retrospective at Tate Britain in London. Paula Rego is a household name, but this exhibition was a revelation for me. I urge you to go – it runs until 24 October!
Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, when the country was under a fascist dictatorship that lasted until 1974. That context has had a profound influence on Rego’s work, inspiring her to focus on the abuse of power, particularly concerning women’s rights and abortion rights. At the age of 16, she was sent to live in England and the following year she began studying painting at the Slade (1952-56). She still lives in London.
I love that Rego is a painter of women’s stories and the experience of being a woman. Her works are huge, colourful and arresting. She is supremely gifted at bringing her subjects’ characters and emotions to life. You feel their pain, fear, defiance, strength, independence, vulnerability and sexual desires. What Germaine Greer said of her work in 1988 is bang on: “It is not often given to women to recognise themselves in painting, still less to see their private world, their dreams, the insides of their heads, projected on such a scale and so immodestly, with such depth and colour.”
The pieces I found particularly striking (in no particular order) include a series of large, painterly pastels depicting women who have just undergone backstreet abortions, which Rego created in response to Portugal’s failed abortion referendum in 1998 (image 2). These works are credited with contributing to the success of the second referendum, which saw abortion fully legalised in 2007. They are brutal, visceral and heartbreaking works. Rego didn’t start using pastels till the 90s, but they suit the subject matter perfectly (“the stick is fiercer, much more aggressive” than the brush, she has said).
There’s an intimate, immersive room of tender pastel portraits of a woman in different positions on a couch (Possession, 2004 – image 3), inspired by late 19th-century photographs of medical lectures showing women diagnosed with “hysteria” and by Rego’s own experience of depression and therapy (the couch in the pictures belonged to her own therapist).
I also loved the beautiful collage-based works from Rego’s early career (1960s and 70s) that continue the Surrealist practice of assembling disparate elements to create new images (I’ve been a big fan of Surrealism since university when I wrote my final dissertation on two women artists associated with the movement – Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo). The collages were made by cutting up her drawings, gluing them on paper and adding layers of paint and other drawings, and inspired by “caricature, newspaper articles, street events, proverbs, children’s songs, wheel dances, nightmares, wishes, fears” (image 5).
In the 1980s Rego’s practice shifted to bold, colourful paintings with distinct outlines. In them she explores dark aspects of human relationships, including from her own life, often portraying caricature-like animals to represent people. In her unnerving ‘Girl and a Dog’ series, the dog is thought to symbolise her husband Victor Willing who had multiple sclerosis and was nearing the end of his life (image 4).
Among other wonderful, often unsettling, paintings from that time is The Maids (1987), based on Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids, itself based on the real-life case of two Parisian maids who murdered the wife and daughter of the family they worked for (image 1).
Go if you can – you won’t regret it!