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Paula Rego

Portuguese-British Painter, Illustrator and Printmaker

Paula Rego Photo
Movements and Styles: Surrealism, School of London, Feminist Art

Born: January 26, 1935 - Lisbon, Portugal

"The Portuguese have a culture that lends itself to the most grotesque stories you can imagine."

Summary of Paula Rego

In Paula Rego's impressive oeuvre the contradictions of humanity are fully exposed; fantasy and reality, strength and suppression, and the personal and the political all writhe together in circling dialogue. She depicts the human figure predominately from life and thus allows her sitters to "flood you with their personality". Often groups of figures interact within Rego's pictures - usually made in pastel rather than paint - as a story with multiple strands mysteriously unfolds. Viewers do not really know what is happening, the action can be baffling, but there is always the sense that however unsettling, complex, and typically sexually charged, that like it or not, we all recognise the emotions at play. Similar to fellow portraitists of The London Group, and also to Alice Neel, Rego extracts individual psychology and dissects it. Her inclusion of props and animals however make her work more surreal, and her love of fabric and clothes as well as certain poses, look back to the classicism of Old Masters.

Key Ideas

Rego celebrates a physical and individualistic way of being female. According to her Portuguese childhood, wealthy women were pressed to do nothing and working-class women to do everything. As such, not happy with either of these prescribed roles, the artist endeavored to be, and to depict a different type of woman. Presenting the antithesis of usual "feminine" behaviour, she made an iconic series of Dog Women. Here the bestial becomes a positive characteristic, and with similar intention to the Pendle Witch series, eccentric behaviour is encouraged and shown to be liberating, rather than as something to be feared and in turn repressed.
Rego has successfully addressed two human experiences that although extremely widespread are almost entirely unrepresented. The first is abortion, and the other, depression. In 1998 Rego made a triptych that revealed women dealing with the consequences of illegal abortion. Addressing a pressing human rights issue, the series came about following a defeated referendum in Portugal that had sought to make abortion legal. The depression series is more recent, made in 2007; it makes visible an otherwise invisible emotion that can cripple and inactivate even the liveliest of spirits.
Rego depicts war and the chaos of grotesque human behaviour en masse in the same way that artists of the New Objectivity movement did, including Otto Dix and George Grosz. The strong overtones of eroticism in the artist's work bring to mind the canvases of the French-Polish artist, Balthus, who similarly included ambiguous pre-pubescent girls. Indeed, Rego is an artist very well versed in the history of art. She recognises that the same themes - in particular the torments of love and war - are timeless strands of enquiry and as such yield the most interesting results.
Rego was a dedicated member of The London Group, an independent organisation established as early as 1913 to help artists with practical matters, for example to secure exhibitions. This group is not to be confused with The School of London, an art term used to describe a group of figurative artists living and making work in London during the 1970s. Although Rego was not officially part of the latter movement, like other members, she was devoted to making the darkest and deepest of individual psychology visible.
Paula Rego Photo

Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935. She was an only child, her family was wealthy and as such she had a comfortable upbringing. Her father became an electrical engineer for the British firm Marconi but when Rego was born, he was still studying. In 1936, he decided to finish his studies in England and moved to the UK with his wife. The couple left Rego to be looked after by her grandmother, grandfather, and her great-grandfather who was a priest. Rego's parents moved back to Portugal when she was three years old and the family moved to Estoril, near Cascais. They bought a large house, with a big garden, but Rego was frightened of the outside at this point and preferred to stay inside and do drawings. Rego went to school and she was also home schooled. She was taught English by a lady who introduced her to imaginative English literature, including J.M. Barrie's story of Peter Pan. At age ten, she moved to a specialist English school in Portugal. It was called St Julian's, based in Carcavelos and Rego remained there from 1945 to 1951.

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