Just after the UK’s last COVID lockdown, and longing to visit galleries again, my mum and I did an online City Lit course on major artists whose work was to be exhibited in London over the summer of 2021.
One of those discussed was renowned Portuguese artist Paula Rego (1935-2022), an artist known for her feminist and political stance, along with skewed references to fairy tales, nursery rhymes and Portuguese fables, reminiscent of a painterly Angela Carter. Other interests and influences include traditionally female crafts such as embroidery and dollmaking (subtly subverted), Jungian psychology and surrealism.
I wasn’t particularly taken with Rego’s work when it was presented to me on screen, but when I went to see the large-scale retrospective of her work at Tate Britain that autumn I was converted. Mum and I saw more of her work on display at the Venice Biennale this year, when we escaped the UK for a whirlwind weekend (her work at the Biennale can be seen here).
Rego grew up in a wealthy family under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, and at 16 moved to the UK for boarding school, later studying at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she met her husband, Victor Willing.
Willing, who Rego outlived by many years, sounds to have been a difficult man to have a relationship with. He was still married when they became involved, and Rego had repeated abortions. Eventually, she returned to her parents in Portugal, where her first child was born. She and Willing eventually married, but he had several affairs, and his health began a fatal decline from his 30s.
The psychologically complex The Dance (1988), a vast canvas (2126 x 2740mm), which has a spectral feel, took months to paint, and was completed after the death of Willing, who is understood to be depicted in the painting, which has often been interpreted autobiographically.
A child dances with two women (her mother and grandmother?); Willing dances first with a woman (perhaps a depiction of Rego), and then, in the foreground, with a faceless, blonde woman (a lover?). Finally, the woman who may represent Rego stands alone, larger in scale than the other figures.
The Dance (of life? of love?) takes place in front of a still, fortified building on a Portuguese beach. Willing looks young and open as he dances with the Rego figure, but appearing again to the left of that image, his expression is harder to read. Rego stated that: ‘It was to have been the picture that would tie everything together, hung over the top of everything else’ (Tate website, quoting Fiona Bradley, Paula Rego, London, 2002, p.42).
Other imposing paintings have the feel of a twisted fairy tale:
Her paintings often suggest a surreal children’s book, although there is sometimes a subtext of power and/or sexuality that is less than child-friendly, as in her famed Girl and Dog (below) paintings, and especially her Dog Woman Series from 1994, in which women are contorted into canine positions, complete with bowls of food on the floor.
Rego’s death was announced this year, but as this Guardian article testifies, she had continued to work in her studio, with her longtime model and sometime alter ego Lila Nunes, pretty much until the end.