Portuguese-British Painter, Illustrator and Printmaker
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.
- 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.
Biography of Paula Rego
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.
Important Art by Paula Rego
This is an early example of Rego's collage work. Rego became interested in collage and large-scale painting from a young age, and began to combine at once abstract and figurative compositions with Surrealist technique. Inspired by the automatic experiments of the Surrealist Movement, Rego sought to free both herself and her practice from the constraints of tradition and rationality and to explore instead the unfettered and unconscious mind. In its richness of color and vivid kinetic energy, the picture not only recalls the canvases of Joan Miro (who Rego herself has quoted as an influence) but also seventeenth-century Indian illustrations of the epic Ramayana tale.
Created whilst Portugal was still ruled under the repressive regime of Salazar, this collage can be read as both as a political challenge and in turn as a re-imagining of hierarchy. There are many shapes that are almost human but not quite. They are twisted and undergoing various stages of metamorphosis, all squabbling, rising, and fighting for some sort of power. The transformation of different shapes into others also seems to pose questions about rigid boundaries - what is the self and what is other? Who has power and who is powerless? These questions, as well as the medium of the piece, recall work by Nancy Spero. Spero also created hybrid woman/animal figures and scattered them across the college plane. As well as exposing pain and suffering, both artists seek to protect and elevate their imaginary creaturely beings.
In this striking painting, a young woman sits on a chair and polishes a brown boot. The boot looks to be part of the uniform of the military police of Salazar's Portugal. During the regime, Salazar maintained control of the country through the use of secret police, as well as police informers. Portuguese citizens lived in fear that their friends or neighbours would report them for dissident acts and that they would be taken away. Though this young woman may only be polishing the boot, this painting asks questions about collaboration - do we see her as equally to blame in her father's actions? Can she too be held responsible for crimes against humanity?
The domestic feel of the interior space, the bare white room and presence of a family cat also demonstrates how political power structures readily invade the home. Rego exposes how power and corruption can pervert and conquer even the most commonplace and innocent of activities. The young woman's face is passive and we do not get a sense of her agency; we can only note the act itself, as if the overachingly repressive regime has successfully eradicated active personality. Here the confines of the interior space are particularly surreal. The tight inclosing perspective makes the viewer feel claustrophobic and recalls works by Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte.
Though titled The Dance, there is much more going on in this picture than a simple celebratory act. Rego depicts two dancing couples, a dancing trio, and a much larger single figure to the side. The people do not necessarily look like they are at the same party, let alone dancing to the same music. The couples seem mostly entwined, particularly the couple to the left of centre, dancing tightly together. The trio represents a profound illustration on the passing of time; a grandmother, mother, and daughter move gracefully together through the cycle of life. Indeed, there is a poignant comparison to be made with this painting and that of the Dance of Life, made by Edvard Munch in 1899. Like the Norwegian Expressionist, Rego too is interested in how human behaviour changes according to whether we are alone, in a couple, or part of a group. She also shares with Munch an interest in the passing from the state of innocence to experience, and in this particular case, to setting a scene at night, the prime time for unconscious musings.
British writer, Lisa Appignanesi comments, "Everything here may be homely, yet everything is simultaneously mysterious. Despite the smiles on the faces, things aren't quite right in Rego's world." This may be partly to do with the mismatch of the dancing individuals represented, but also because of the dark and looming background; the moon illuminates the beach scene and there is a dark fortress positioned on a hill that stands behind. As previously mentioned, during the Estado Novo, political dissidence was severely punished, often with imprisonment. Alternatively, the fortress could represent the pain that always accompanies the experience of joy. The painting was completely not long after Willing's death and he is the model for one of the male figures. The fortress then could be a monument to grief and mourning, and the painting a general homage to the journey and loss of love.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Paula Rego
- Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic WorksBy T. G. Rosenthal
- Paula Rego: Behind the ScenesBy John McEwen
- Paula RegoBy Fiona Bradley
- Love and Authority in the Work of Paula Rego: Narrating the Family RomanceBy Ruth Rosengarten
- Paulo RegoBy John McEwen