‘I’m trying to get justice for women…revenge too’: Paula Rego (1935-2022), who was ‘shocking and exciting’

“Get out of here, this is not a country for women,” her father told her. And she left. Paula Rego celebrated “the splendid richness of life” through images “darkly sexual, deeply sinister, full of drama, violence and symbolism”. Died this Wednesday, there will be national mourning

He said he just wanted to “make dolls” and tell stories. He looked at his work with incredible detachment – ​​”what I do is draw everything, it’s not real painting”. And yet, with her “dolls”, Paula Rego was an extraordinary interpreter of our most candid dreams and our most horrible (and even hidden) nightmares.

Ours, the people of that time, but we could also say ours, the women, because in her work the woman almost always plays the leading role – the oppressed woman, the submissive woman, the woman who rebels, the woman who gives life, the woman who takes life, the woman-girl, the woman who grows old, the woman who cares, the woman who desires. Of course, there are other themes – childhood, family, memories, oppression, sex, “beautiful brutality”, as she called it, death – and there is a very singular and very dreamy which is revealed in his work, which is all impregnated with this predominant theme: the condition of women in intimate and social life. “I’m trying to get justice for women…at least in paintings…Revenge too,” he said in a BBC interview.

The 87-year-old painter Paula Rego, considered one of the most important names in contemporary art, died this Wednesday in London – “quietly at home, with her children”. The Government, in consultation with the President of the Republic, has decreed national mourning.

When he started working, in the 1950s, figurative art was not in fashion, which shows his determination and originality from the start. She was born in Lisbon in 1935. “Go away, this is not a country for women,” her father told her. And she left. He moved to London in 1952 to study at the Slade School of Art, where he met artist Victor Willing, whom he married in 1959.

“In the 1950s, the consensus was that women couldn’t be artists,” she said in an interview. “Women were there to be partners and supporters of their artist husbands. I was not one of them. I wanted to be in the ‘big boy’ club, with the great painters I admired. Just as I wanted to be Robin Hood and not Lady Marion. . I actually had a Robin Hood outfit,” he said.

Paula Rego lived between Ericeira and London, where she received a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to research children’s stories, until in 1975 she settled permanently in the United Kingdom, although that she continues to exhibit regularly in Portugal – where she was, since 1978, represented by Galeria 111.

In 1988, he held his first major exhibition in the United Kingdom, at the Serpentine Gallery, and took the necessary step towards internationalization with the Marlborough Fine Art gallery. The following year Willing died and a year later Paula Rego was nominated for the Turner Prize, the highest honor for fine art in the UK. “I was very happy to be able to sell my paintings. We had great financial difficulties at the time”, he will comment on the late recognition: “Finally they took me seriously.”

In 1990 she was the first associated artist at the National Gallery and in 2001 she received the Celpa/Vieira da Silva award for consecration. With exhibitions in institutions such as the Cultural Center of Belém and the Serralves Museum, the Tate Gallery and the Tate Modern (London), the Reina Sofia (Madrid) or the Pinacoteca (São Paulo), Paula Rego has been able to achieve an old dream and In 2009 Casa das Histórias was inaugurated in Cascais (because she did not like the word museum but, on the other hand, she needed stories that are the main food of her drawings), a space designed by Souto de Moura where hundreds of donated pieces are deposited or borrowed by the artist.

After having painted the official portrait of the then President of the Republic Jorge Sampaio in 2006, in 2010 it was the turn of Queen Isabella II to give her the title of Dame. Since 1917, the title has been awarded to more than 700 actresses, writers, dancers and others. But only four painters had this distinction. As the writer Hélder Macedo commented then: “An extraordinary artist who cannot be more established – she was recently awarded the title of Lady of the British Empire – but who maintains Portugueseness in painting and a theatrical sense that promotes a lyrical sense in his painting and the haunting character of a childhood that turns to the horrors of adult life”.

Critically acclaimed Paula Rego has also become one of the most sought after artists at auction. In 2008, “Baying” (in Portuguese Howling), a pastel canvas from 1994, sold for €738,000 at Sotheby’s in London – a record for the artist until then.

The international value of his work was affirmed in 2015 with the auction in London of the work “The Cadet and his Sister” (1988) (“The Cadet and his Sister”, in English translation), for 1, 6 million euros, becoming a new record for the Portuguese artist.

Life turned into pictures

“My parents had a very loving marriage, but it was also complicated, with a lot of pain, a lot of suffering,” their son, Nick, said during the presentation of his latest exhibition at the Malaga Museum in April. The son spoke openly about his mother’s infidelities over ‘Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove,’ one of the paintings from the early 1980s ‘The Red Monkey’ series: The Bear, Nick says , was the lover of Paula Rego. , which is represented in her as the dove which the husband (the monkey, of course) gives to another man.

“The paintings in this series give my mother permission to do something she was afraid to do and ended up not doing – cutting ties with my father, who spent many years sick in bed . My mom had other boyfriends while she was married to my dad, she had a lot of fun, but she never stopped being Vic Willing’s wife,” says Nick Willing, the son who , in 2017 introduced us to the painter with the documentary “Paula Rego: Histórias e Segredos”, enjoying many of the family’s films – the oldest belonged to his father, José Figueiroa Rego, the most recent made by Nick himself , who began recording family footage in the 1970s and continued through the mid-1990s.

These images of Paula Rego in childhood and intimacy were then added to the interviews carried out by her son and the many hours he spent watching her work. “She forgets there’s a camera there because I’m the only person there, there’s no cameraman or sound guy. I turn on all three cameras and let them roll. talk about life and tell stories,” Willing said. “But she can’t analyze the paintings she does, she can only talk about the history of the painting and how she does it. If I ask ‘why are you doing that?’ she doesn’t know and says “if I knew I couldn’t paint, I paint to find out why I paint that”.

In this documentary, Paula Rego takes up in the first person many themes that she had already approached in her paintings: sexual violence, abortions, depression. She also evokes the suicide attempt of her husband, who died in 1988 after living with multiple sclerosis for more than 20 years, the last of which he was bedridden.

“The mother is in a much better mood than before,” Nick Willing said in 2015. “She’s always had a lot of secrets and was very closed off, but now she’s 80 and doesn’t care what other people think of her. her, she’s more free to talk about the things she feels like talking about — talking about her life in the 50s and 60s, my dad, the fight against fascism, the fight to be a woman painter.” Paula Rego continued to visit her studio in London every day. “But she is a little fragile and very tired. The mother lived her life very well and also sometimes worked too much,” admitted the son.

Shocking and childish images mingle in the artist’s latest retrospective

The stories, real or imagined, followed the life of painter Paula Rego, a fascination that began in childhood when her aunt told her about it – and inspired her paintings. In his work, violence and pain coexist with a childish and dreamlike universe, with numerous references to children’s stories. “[Com as histórias] you can punish those you don’t like and praise those you like. And then we invent a story to explain everything”, he commented during the opening of one of his exhibitions.

In 2021, he succeeds in realizing one of his greatest dreams as an artist: to exhibit at the Tate Britain museum in London, an exhibition house he has always seen as a male stronghold. Ali presented a retrospective exhibition – with over 100 works from her 60-year career – which proved to be Paula Rego’s largest and most comprehensive exhibition in the UK, including – in addition to the painting – sculptures, collages and drawings from the 1950s to the most recent, including the “Mulher Cão” series, from the 1990s, and “Aborto”, one of the most impactful series political and social in Portugal, carried out during the campaign for the decriminalization of the procedure in the country. The exhibition is currently at the Picasso Museum in Malaga, Spain, where it can be visited until August 21.

“Paula Rego is a great artist and an underrated artist,” art historian and curator Catherine Lampert told the BBC at the time, stressing that her work has always been relevant: “May you approach war or death with ‘honor’, nothing escapes your awareness of life’s challenges… It’s shocking and exciting at times – but that’s one of the roles of art.” The historian had no doubt that the works of Paula Rego contributed to breaking the taboos concerning women’s anger and pain.

The greatness of Paula Rego’s work has been recognized in many ways. The artist received, among others, the Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso Grand Prize in 2013, in addition to being awarded the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Sant’Iago da Espada in 2004. In 2019, she received the Medal of Culture Merit from the Government of Portugal.

Last year, she was considered one of the 25 most influential women of the year by the British newspaper Financial Times (FT). “The obsessive images of this artist have an enormous, often destabilizing power”, writes Jan Dalley in his profile of the Portuguese artist, recalling that Paula Rego grew up in a religious and “deeply conventional” family and then moved to London , where she continued fighting for their rights in the male-dominated art world. And yet, “Rego has become arguably the most important figurative painter of our time,” writes the FT. “Its intense and direct imagery – darkly sexual, deeply sinister, full of drama, violence and symbolism” draws inspiration from “fantasy and myth” while celebrating “the splendid richness of life”.

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