In addressing topics ranging from abortion rights and female genital mutilation to the oppressive Salazar regime in her native Portugal, Dame Paula Rego has harnessed anger and outrage to create an extraordinary body of work. She talks to Susan Mansfield about the forces that drive her ahead of a major exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Singular is the kind of word one comes back to when trying to describe Paula Rego. She is original, independent, one of a kind. A painter who tells stories. A mythologiser who works with often brutal realism. An artist who came into her full powers in her sixties. A strong woman whose perspective is both distinctly female and distinctly her own.Now 84, Dame Paula Rego is regarded as one of the most important artists of her generation. A major survey show of her work – the first in the UK for 20 years, and the first ever in Scotland – will be unveiled this weekend at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In the art world, she has the status of an honoured grandmother, but there is nothing in the least grandmotherly about her work.
Rego is best known for the way she uses elements of fairy tales and folk tales to create dark, modern, open-ended stories. However, as curator Catherine Lampert explains, this show draws out different strands of her practice. “We’re not against the interpretation of Paula as a great interpreter of folk tales and fairy tales, but by not focusing on that aspect, we begin to see how politics permeates all her work.”
This is politics in its broadest sense, from incisive criticism of Portugese dictator Antonio Salazar in the 1960s to anger at atrocities committed against civilians in the Gulf War in 2003. But she is also an astute observer of power play of all kinds, and of injustice, particularly against women. When she paints bodies, they are real not idealised, and this, too, is a political act.
Now frail, Rego will answer questions only by email, but there are traces in her answers of the woman Lampert describes – funny, feisty, frank. Is the personal political, I ask her. “There isn’t much difference,” she says. “What some people call political is just the life we have to live.”
Both personal and the political run through her art like live wires. She is unafraid to take on issues – legalising abortion, or raising awareness of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – but at the same time the dramas she paints have deeply embedded layers of personal connection. Lampert says: “I don’t think she ever embarked on a painting that didn’t ring some kind of bell for her, in her experience. Things are never black and white with Paula.”
Rego was born in 1935 in Lisbon, in the early years of Salazar’s fascist dictatorship. Her liberal parents sent their daughter to finishing school in England, and in 1952 she enrolled at the Slade School of Art. There, she was a contemporary of David Hockney and Frank Auerbach. Lucien Freud, a little older, was a visiting tutor.
She married fellow student Vic Willing and settled in Ericeira, Portugal, where she painted prolifically. Her first solo exhibition in Lisbon in 1965 – featuring work critical of Salazar and the repression in the country, and painted vigorously in a style which combined elements of abstraction, surrealism and pop art – enthralled and horrified the art establishment in equal measure.
However, when the family returned to London in 1976, it was under a cloud. Willing had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the disease was advancing. An ill-fated attempt to take over Rego’s father’s business had failed, and they were close to penniless. Artistically, Rego was in a dry period, her reservoir of stories depleted.
Then, in the darkest days of caring for Willing in his final years, she began to do something quite different. She painted a series of works featuring girls and dogs, into which she poured all the complexities of being a carer: loyalty, obligation, tenderness, resentment. Several years later, after Willing’s death, the “Dog Women” series took these ideas further: now the woman had become the dog, sleeping on her master’s coat, water bowl beside her.
Rego says: “Both those series of works are about my life with Vic. How it was and what I felt. In Girls and Dogs Vic was still alive and I used a dog instead of him, to show how it is to look after a sick dog. They don’t always want to take their medicine and you sometimes have to prize their jaws open. You are cruel to be kind. It’s not literal, it’s the feeling of it. With Dog Women Vic had died and I was alone, missing him. Still do.”
She had also begun working in a new way. She moved from paint to pastel, and started working from life, setting up scenarios in her studio using props and costumes and a small number of trusted models. She had also discovered a new reservoir of stories. For the first time, she had exhibitions at major London galleries. Charles Saatchi collected her work.
Often, her paintings capture moments of complex power play: The Maids, inspired by Jean Genet’s play of the same name, is an uneasy and ultimately sinister examination of the relationship of maid and mistress. Snow White and Step Mother is about the shifting power of beauty and age. She has said: “My favourite themes are power games and hierarchies. I always want to turn things on their heads, to upset the established order, to change heroines and idiots.”
Nuanced and psychological as her paintings are, she is an unashamed champion of the rights of women. A series based on The Crime of Father Amaro, a 1870s novel by Eca de Queiros – the #MeToo story of its time – ends with a painting of an avenging angel, a determined woman in Victorian dress wielding a knife. Co-curator of the show Alice Strang, senior curator in modern and contemporary art at NGS, says: “It’s an avenging angel for all the wrongs that have been done against women by men. The show isn’t all about the dreadful situations that women find themselves in – this is empowering.”
In 1998, a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal failed, in part due to low turnout. Rego embarked on a major series of paintings and etchings detailing the reality of backstreet abortions, which were credited with helping to shift public opinion in the run up to a second referendum in 2007, in which legalisation was passed. Rego says: “It made me furious that women would continue to suffer with unsafe abortions because people couldn’t be bothered to vote. I felt it was important to draw attention to it and to make people look. That gave me tremendous energy and I’m proud of the work that I did.”
More recent subjects in her work have included Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and honour killing. Strang says: “I think that she is a brave and courageous artist, and she is looking at some of the toughest issues that contemporary society is dealing with. She is highlighting them and raising awareness in the way she knows how. Even in her seventies, she didn’t rest on her laurels, she’s stayed angry, and defiant.”
It’s the defiant Rego who comes through when I ask her what the #MeToo movement tells us: “Girls taught to be meek and to be quiet don’t always do what they’re told. So look out, we are witnesses.”
I would bet she said it with a glint in her eye.
Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two), from 23 November until 19 April 2020