Paula Rego never sought to explain her inexplicable pictures. She insisted instead that art was about going “to the origin, the imaginative origin that provides the images of what we have inside us, without us knowing what it is”. What she had inside herself was bewildering, powerful, often sinister – although Rego always denied this trait – and inevitably universal.
For the viewer, her pictures are about recognition. Her nursery-rhyme illustrations with their blind mice, menacing spiders, cavorting insects and animals offer an instant passage back to formless childhood night terrors that never quite dissipate in adulthood; her big paintings of a girl polishing her father’s leather boots, tying her cadet brother’s shoelaces or plucking a goose clamped between her legs contain, somehow, the swirl of sexuality; the pictures featuring her “dollies” – the human-size creatures she made herself with pillow heads or rabbit faces – invoke the cast of characters and characteristics that make up a single human being and allow it to function; her large pastels of women crouching like dogs, sprawling and lying splayed suggest the rawness of femininity untrammelled by social convention. There’s religion, birth, death, and illness too, rarely specific and never concerned with conventional beauty.
The pictures are, however, always visceral. The viewer might not know exactly what’s going on in an image but they can feel a charge, a squirt of queasiness in the stomach or a subtle but tangible miscalibration between mind and body. Something, whatever it might be, is happening and it is meaningful.
For Rego, picture making was a way both of exploring the workings of her mind and dealing with them. Her son, the film-maker Nick Willing, recalled that in 2007 his mother was afflicted with a particularly intense and dangerous depressive episode and “drew her way out of it”. She made a series of pastel drawings of a woman dressed in black – slumped and alone, self-portraits that don’t carry her features – and then locked them away in a drawer. “She had put the depression into them,” and if she hadn’t conquered it – because she couldn’t – she had exercised some agency over it. Rego once said she painted “to give fear a face”.
Something of this same instinct lay behind one of her few series with an explicit subject, the abortion pictures she made in 1998 as a response to a failed attempt to legalise terminations in her native Portugal. In the pictures she said she was “doing what I can with my work, but both men and women need to stand up to this. It affects men, too. You don’t get pregnant on your own, do you?” She knew what she was talking about, having had an abortion while still at the Slade School of Art in the early 1950s – it was not her only one. The pictures show no blood or medical intervention because “I didn’t want… anything to sicken, because people wouldn’t look at it then. And what you want to do is make people look, make pretty colours and make it agreeable, and in that way make people look at life.” Pretty colours and painful subjects was the formula of a great deal of traditional religious art too. Her updated method worked: the pictures have been credited with helping the success of a second abortion vote in Portugal in 2007.
What seems remarkable today is how isolated Rego was for a large chunk of her career. The determinedly personal nature of her work, its magic realism, and her figurative if not realistic style put her outside the current of art that believed for much of the 1980s and 1990s that painting was dead and video, photography and installations were alive.
Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935 and grew up under the Salazar dictatorship. Her anti-fascist, Anglophile parents sent her to finishing school in England and from there she moved on to the Slade where she met the painter Victor Willing, who was married. After he had divorced his wife and married Rego, the couple divided their time between London and Portugal. Although she spent two decades caring for Willing, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1966 and died in 1988, she was painting all the time. Nevertheless, while she had a solo exhibition in in Portugal as early as 1965 she didn’t have her first show in Britain until 1981 and her first retrospective, at the Serpentine Gallery, until 1988. She had long been a revered figure in Portugal – a museum to show her work, Casa das Histórias Paula Rego (House of Stories Paula Rego), was opened near Lisbon in 2009 – while in the UK there was for many years a wilful blindness to the extraordinary painter in our midst.
What is often overlooked too in the urge to unpick her paintings is their art-historical adroitness. Rego made new art that was thoroughly conversant with what had gone before and looked at sources as different as John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Arthur Rackham’s children’s book pictures, the Catholic art of the Spanish Golden Age painters, the erotically-charged figuration of Balthus and, above all, Goya, whose often disturbing vision of human nature as it both fights and embraces the irrational was something she shared.
These influences – never borrowings – help give her pictures both gravitas and a certain theatricality. Like her contemporaries Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud she was comfortable working in the grand manner, composing images with control rather than letting them simply emerge. It means that many of her paintings, whatever the subject, have the presence of altarpieces – a piquant irony, given that she was no fan of the Church.
What was remarkable about her too is that her standards never slipped. At no stage in Paula Rego’s long career was there any pictorial complacency, she just kept on making art “with the hand and the gut” and dragging the dark recesses into the light.
[ See also: The mysterious and unsettling pictures of Paula Rego ]
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down