Paula Rego - Biography and Legacy
Portuguese-British Painter, Illustrator and Printmaker
Biography of Paula Rego
Childhood and youth
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.
For all of Rego's childhood, Portugal was ruled under the fascist regime of Estado Novo. After a military coup in 1929, the country was led for almost 30 years by the dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. Thus although her home life remained secure the repressive regime loomed in the background and augmented a general anxiety in Rego; even as a child she used art as a means to create order and to escape from her fears. Her liberal family both recognised and opposed the confines of living in Portugal at this time and as such sent Rego to a finishing school in Kent, UK when she was 16.
From the finishing school she moved to The Slade School of Fine Art and studied there from 1952-1956. Here Rego was friend and contemporary to both Diana Cumming and Michael Andrews. Rego has described how she struggled to make accurate to scale drawings whilst at Art College . And though she was not one of the best-known students at the time, she did gain praise from those within her own art circle; in particular, the famous English landscape painter, L.S. Lowry, commented how much he liked her work. Most importantly, at The Slade, Rego met fellow student and artist, Victor Willing. Willing had been married to his long-time girlfriend Hazel Whittington since 1951 but he and Rego fell quickly and deeply in love and began an affair. When Rego went back to Portugal after the completion of her studies in 1956 she was pregnant with the couple's first child. Willing initially returned to his wife, leaving Rego alone to call upon the help of her parents. After a few months however, Willing decided differently and went to find Rego in Portugal. They were married in 1959, went on to have two more children and lived in Ericeria, Portugal, for seven years.
At this point in her artistic career, Rego principally made political collages that challenged authority and power structures. The collages resemble Indian illustrations of the epic Ramayana story, and also the work of the American artist, Nancy Spero. The work is rich and interesting but Rego remembers the period as one dominated by depression, noting in an interview, "I seized up and got into a terrible depression. I couldn't keep following the rules; I had to break out."
In 1962, Rego's father bought a house for his daughter and her family in London, and from this point forth the artist began to move between Ericeria and the new family home. Whilst in London Rego started to exhibit her work as part of The London Group. She was the only female artist at the time to show paintings alongside the likes of David Hockney and Frank Auerbach. Formed much earlier, in 1913, this artist-led and organised group was entirely democratic and apolitical and aimed to offer practical support to working artists. In 1965, Rego took part in a group show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London (ICA), called Six Artists, and in the same year had her first solo show in Lisbon at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes. These two exhibitions established Rego as a political and subversive artist, and also demonstrated the influence of Surrealism, and particularly of automatism and Joan Miro on her work.
1966 was a difficult year for both Rego and Willing; both of their fathers died, and Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In order to keep the Rego family business, Willing put his own art career on hold and took it over. Despite such efforts, the business collapsed in 1974 and the family returned to the UK, settling permanently in London in 1976. Though personally, this was a difficult and tumultuous period in Rego's life she still managed to have several solo shows both in Britain and Portugal during the 1970s. Though Rego was now settled in London, she continued to be heavily influenced by Portuguese politics, culture, and folklore: to Rego's mind, traditional folklore is not the twee or wholesome resource we might think of, but a collection of scary and terrible narratives that help to expose unconscious desires and shared malice. In 1973, Rego started to see a Jungian therapist regularly to help cope with her depression.
During the 1980s, many of Rego's paintings were highly erotic, exploring the complexities of female sexuality and the Freudian family drama. In 1987, she became represented by the Edward Totah gallery, and then subsequently by Marlborough Fine Art, who have represented her ever since. In 1988, Rego had her first major retrospective which travelled between the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Casa de Serralves, Oporto, and the Serpentine Gallery in London. By this point she had moved away from collage work completely and focused on figurative depictions using oil paint with clearer indications of narratives. In the touring 1988 exhibition, she exhibited many of her large-scale paintings, including some her most well known such as The Family (1988) and The Dance (1988). She became the first Associate Artist of the National Gallery, an artist-in-residence scheme through which she could undertake collaborative works with institutional support. During the residency she created a series of paintings and prints based on nursery rhymes, a long-standing favourite topic of hers. By this point Rego was a fully-fledged public figure in British cultural life, though her work always remained intimately involved with the politics and mythology of Portugal.
Later in the 1980s, Rego started to work regularly with life models. In particular, the artist has worked continuously with Lila Nunes who she uses as a stand in figure for her own self. Nunes came into Rego's life as a nurse in 1985 to help her take care of her husband, Willing in the final few years of his life. After many years struggling with his illness, Willing died in 1988. Nunes remained with Rego as her friend, artist companion, and primary model.
Rego continued to work and paint prolifically throughout the 1990s. By this point she had made the transition from paint to pastel. Rego said in interview, "Yes. Pastel, pastel, pastel, pastel, pastel [...] Never rubbing anything. Drawing, drawing, drawing [...] I don't like the wonkiness of the brush, I'm not mad about the lyrical quality of the brush. I much prefer the hardness of the stick [...] The stick is fiercer, much more aggressive."
During the 2000s she has made many print and drawing series. One notable series made in 2007 focuses entirely on the artist's long standing battle with depression. Over the past two decades the artist has become a highly distinguished and talented printmaker. She has said herself, "I turn to etching, and lithography, with a sense of exuberance and relief. In printmaking you can give your imagination full-range and see the results almost immediately. So one image triggers the idea for the next one and so on." Most recently she has been making exquisite etching and aquatints. These are typically both comical and political. Earlier motifs including masks, brides, and maids continue to appear today, and the artist often interweaves messages from contemporary existence, personal memory, and collective myths and fairytales.
Rego's work continues to challenge political narratives and to explore contemporary issues particularly those affecting women, such as reproductive rights and the refugee crisis. Robert Hughes, the esteemed art critic, calls her "the best painter of women's experiences alive today." Rego continues to live in Hampstead, North London, and travels regularly to her studio in Kentish Town.
The Legacy of Paula Rego
Rego is an incredibly important cultural figure in Portugal, considered to be one of the nation's most famous and influential artists. In 2004, she had another retrospective at the Serralves museum in Porto, which was so popular that it had to keep its doors open 24 hours a day. In 2009, she was honoured by her country of origin through the creation of The Paula Rego House of Stories, a dedicated museum built in Cascais, where she had spent much time as a child. The building was designed by the architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who seamlessly inserted an impressive contemporary structure into a beautiful natural setting. The museum houses many Rego works, as well as paintings by the artist's late husband, Victor Willing.
Internationally, the influence of Rego's work is greatly felt across contemporary painting, sculpture and printmaking. Artists who challenge traditional representations of the female body are particularly indebted to Rego, for example the British painter Jenny Saville. Saville presents a similar unapologetic and confrontational depiction of women. Similarly, though Cecily Brown's more abstracted work is also very different to Rego, her combination of figurative and abstract techniques have a similar lustre and energy. By way of closer comparison, both the artists Kiki Smith and Marcelle Hanselaar work regularly with the re-imagining and contemporary representation of old stories and fairy tales. Rego, for Smith and Hanselaar is a kindred spirit.
Rego's work is inspirational for all young artists in its thoroughness and rigour in the combination of many different influences and styles. She successfully gleans and learns from the Old Masters, Surrealism, literature, children's stories, and folklore. She successfully demonstrates that an artist's work is always made in profound conversation with the culture in which it is immersed. She powerfully suggests that all art and life is interrelated.