Paula Rego: Giving Fear a Face

Elena Crippa

Paula Rego grew up in Portugal under the shadow of dictatorship. She became aware of the power of the unspoken as keeping secrets was vital to survival. In a career that has spanned six decades, her paintings are frequently inspired by her personal fears, desires and a passion to fight injustice.

Tate curator Elena Crippa takes us through the work of Rego, from the personal loss that influenced some of her major paintings to her response to social inequality in her native Portugal.

Comparing Rego’s works to those of some of the giants of art history, Crippa shows us how Rego deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. In her pictures women take centre stage, confident in their physical and emotional strength. Rego might be scared but she’ll look the devil in the face.

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[Voice of Paula Rego, and in italics hereafter:]

And these pictures were all done when Vic was very sick, he had MS, he was already in bed. I didn’t know what to do…

All these animals become people I know, and the thing becomes rather personal really.

So many mixed feelings about somebody who’s very ill, no matter how much you love them you resent them dreadfully for being ill and you want to care for them anyway. It was what I did, the Girls and Dogs was all about Vic.

The dog doesn’t know which way to look. He’s not going to look in the obvious place is he, ‘cos he’s much too polite. So, he kind of… didn’t know where to look. And she’s having a jolly good time teasing him, nasty girl. Poor dog.

In The Family what we see is not a conventional family group. We have a man sitting on the bed and being very much handled by three young women. They are strong female presences and in different ways are attempting  to revitalise this man, to bring him back to life. And this of course relates to Rego’s husband’s condition, he suffered for many years of multiple sclerosis, it’s an illness which is of course degenerative.

So, in a way the picture depicts the love and yet also the struggle to live and support someone experiencing a long period of illness.

There are other interesting elements in the picture. There is an oratory at the back with images of two saints – St George and the dragon and Joan of Arc. Sort of there to conquer evil presences and bring back peace. And yet we also have another image underneath. A reference to a fable, of the stork and the fox. What will happen once the stork removes the bone from the fox? So, there are all these different possible narratives about the developing of this story.

I called it the ‘Raising of Lazaru’s.They’re trying anything to get their father to come alive, rubbing themselves against him and everything. And, there’s a girl praying, a miraculous girl praying there as well. Miss Beston used to work at the Marlborough, came to see it in my studio, and I said, ‘I don’t know what to call it’. She said, ‘call it The Family, that goes for everything’. So instead of the ‘Raising of Lazarus’, which would have been rather, you know, she said, ‘call it The Family’, so I called it The Family.

What we see in The Danceare different moments in the life of a woman and Victor Willing actually dies before this painting is completed. In the background we see three women dancing: a child, a mother and a grandmother. And very much speaking about the cycle of life. And we have a woman larger than life, larger than any other characters in the picture. And the woman stands there on her own. It seems to me it’s also a picture about mourning, about Rego losing her husband. And sort of finding…having the need and finding the strength to stand on her own and proceed both in her life and in her career without having her husband next to her.

The Dog Womenare very interesting because in a way they are enacting a very new and different way of being a woman. They are very powerful, they are on all fours, they are screaming, and seem to be hungry for food, for love, for companionship. There is a sort of unresolved desire to sort of obtain something and become more powerful. There is no fear to express their full physicality. They are women struggling, trying to deal with the incredible pain.

We can also look at the dog women as these very unruly creatures. They’re not socially acceptable women. They don’t behave in the way in which women are meant to behave and appear.

I realised that a lot of them had to do with Vic. She’s sleeping on her owner’s coat over there. With a plate of food. That was his blazer. Do you see? And it brought it all… I was able to relive being in touch with him again, you know what I mean?

Suddenly we’re exposed to all these different ways of being a woman. A much more powerful sense of embodying one’s own physicality. And also, a much more sexualised female type of sexuality coming across in the pictures.

Paula Rego was born in 1935. Only a few years after the establishment of a dictatorship. As always under a dictatorship one grows up in a period where there are very limited rights, and this was particularly the case for women who couldn’t vote, couldn’t even have a bank account.

It was oppressive. He shut down all the teacher training schools. He…people stopped school, school was between 6 years old and 10 years old, that’s all you did.

We have three different panels narrating three different moments. The work relates to William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode and what Rego does, is she sort of distils three different moments out of this longer narrative and transposing it from 18th century Britain to contemporary Portugal.

The situation of the women depicted is very different. In Hogarth’s the woman has taken her life and she’s dying. While in Rego’s painting the woman is very much expressing an ability to survive.

In 1998, there was a referendum on abortion in Portugal with a view of legalising abortion, which was only possible in very particular circumstances.

It was a regular thing in Portugal where you know you weren’t supposed to have abortions, but it was the easiest place to get one. And everybody had them, it was total hypocrisy, total hypocrisy. And I thought I wanted to do something about it so I did these pictures of girls having abortions, I decided to make them into school girls, because very often quite young women who were still at school have foetuses dropped down the lavatory for instance. And so, I decided to put them in uniform, school uniforms. I went to John Lewis, I got all these little frocks and uniforms and so on. And we started doing a series of people having abortions actually, quite explicit.  So, I wanted to have it quite clinically shown, and… and I did… I did do it. I did it with Lila, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of having done.

Goya’s certainly a very interesting example as an artist that we can relate to the work of Rego. We have this sense of an artist was very much interested in the political and social context in which he lived and very much wanted to reference that particular moment and yet also wanted to inject it with the violence and the more sort of extreme qualities of personal experiences.

We have this for example, cycles of Follies in which men and women seem to go beyond rationality and express these sorts of deeper desires and drives in a way that is very expressive and forceful and even menacing.

Fear is probably the most important thing. I mean, you might as well look at it, mightn’t you? If you can and you have the courage to do it. Because sometimes you don’t want to look.

Traditionally within art history we have so few representations of women that very much showed their psychological complexity but also their physical, real qualities, of the way in which they embody life.

The picture allows you to feel all sorts of forbidden things. And that is why you do pictures because you get at things that you didn’t realise, and you’re allowed to do even outrageous things and everything.

With thanks to…
Jake Auerbach
Marlborough Fine Art
Nick Willing
Web of Stories

 

Archive

AP Archive
Jake Auerbach Films
British Movietone
Manuela Morais
Marlborough Fine Art
Museo Nacional del Prado
The National Gallery
Paula Rego Archive
Web of Stories

 

Music

Audio Network

Freesound

 

Full list of images shown:

Paula Rego gallery interviews from

Paula Rego: Telling Tales

© Jake Auerbach Films

 

Untitled ‘Girl and Dog’ series

Paula Rego, 1986

© Paula Rego

Private Collection

 

Paula Rego with her husband Victor Willing

Archive photographs copyright of Paula Rego archive and photographer Manuela Morais

 

Untitled ‘Girl and Dog’ series

Paula Rego, 1986

© Paula Rego

Private Collection

 

Paula Rego with her husband Victor Willing at their home in Ericeira, Portugal, 1970

Archive photographs copyright of Paula Rego archive and photographer Manuela Morais

 

Untitled ‘Girl and Dog’ series

Paula Rego, 1986

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Private Collection

 

Paula Rego with her husband Victor Willing No.2

Archive photographs copyright of Paula Rego archive and photographer Manuela Morais

 

Untitled ‘Girl and Dog’ series

Paula Rego, 1986

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Private Collection

 

Paula Rego with her husband Victor Willing No.3

Archive photographs copyright of Paula Rego archive and photographer Manuela Morais

 

Girl Lifting up her Skirts to a Dog

Paula Rego, 1986

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Private Collection

 

Paula Rego: Telling Tales

© Jake Auerbach Films

 

The Family

Paula Rego, 1988

© Paula Rego

Saatchi Collection, London

 

Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People (Paula Rego)

[Listener: Catherine Lampert]

2007

Copyrighted recording of Paula Rego for Web of Stories reproduced with permission.

 

The Dance

Paula Rego, 1988

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Tate Collection (T05534)

 

Sleeper (Dog Woman)

Paula Rego, 1994

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Private Collection

 

Baying

Paula Rego, 1994

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

 

Dog Woman

Paula Rego, 1994

©  Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Saatchi Collection, London

 

Bad Dog

Paula Rego, 1994

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Private Collection

 

Grooming

Paula Rego, 1994

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Private Collection

 

Scavengers

Paula Rego, 1994

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Private Collection

 

Paula Rego: Telling Tales

© Jake Auerbach Films

 

Sleeper

Paula Rego, 1994

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Private Collection

 

Target

Paula Rego, 1995

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

 

Repugnance

Paula Rego, 2001

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

 

Mist II

Paula Rego, 1996

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Tate Collection (P77911)

 

Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’

Paula Rego, 1995

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Saatchi Collection, London

 

Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ (triptych left-panel)

Paula Rego, 1995

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Saatchi Collection, London

 

Dancing Ostriches from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’

Paula Rego, 1955

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Saatchi Collection, London

 

The Artist in Her Studio

Paula Rego, 1993

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Leeds Art Gallery

 

Paula Tea

© OstrichArts

Archive photographs copyright of Paula Rego archive and photographer Manuela Morais

 

Delgado and Salazar 1958 elections. Salazar and Admiral Thomas at pre-election rally.

Salazar visits Franco 1942. Salazar at Centenary Celebrations 1940.

British Movietone / AP Archive

 

Portugal Salazar footage 1968

AP Archive

 

Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People (Paula Rego)

[Listener: Catherine Lampert]

2007

Copyrighted recording of Paula Rego for Web of Stories reproduced with permission.

 

The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck, after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth

Paula Rego, 1999

Tate Collection (T07919)

 

Marriage A-la-Mode: 1, The Marriage Settlement

William Hogarth, 1743

The National Gallery

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Marriage A-la-Mode: 4, The Toilette

William Hogarth, 1743

The National Gallery

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Marriage A-la-Mode: 5, The Bagnio

William Hogarth, 1743

The National Gallery

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Marriage A-la-Mode: 6, The Lady’s Death

William Hogarth, 1743

The National Gallery

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Pro-Abortion rallies in Bilbao, Lisbon and London,1979

AP Archive

 

Anti-Abortion Protest in Lisbon, 1982

AP Archive

 

Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People (Paula Rego)

[Listener: Catherine Lampert]

2007

Copyrighted recording of Paula Rego for Web of Storiesreproduced with permission

 

Triptych (centre panel)

Paula Rego, 1998

©Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Lakeland Arts Collection – Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum

 

Triptych (left panel)

Paula Rego, 1998

©Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Lakeland Arts Collection – Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum

 

Triptych (right panel)

Paula Rego, 1998

©Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Lakeland Arts Collection – Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum

 

Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People (Paula Rego)

[Listener: Catherine Lampert]

2007

Copyrighted recording of Paula Rego for Web of Stories reproduced with permission

 

Untitled no.3

Paula Rego, 1998

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

 

Untitled no.5

Paula Rego, 1998

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

 

Disparates No.4, Big Booby

Francisco Goya, 1815-1819

© Museo Nacional del Prado

 

Disparates No.2, Folly of fear

Francisco Goya, 1815-1819

© Museo Nacional del Prado

 

Disparates No.6, Cruel Folly

Francisco Goya, 1815-1819

© Museo Nacional del Prado

 

Disparates No.10, The Kidnapping Horse

Francisco Goya, 1815-1819

© Museo Nacional del Prado

 

Disparates No.12, Disparate alegre

Francisco Goya, 1815-1819

© Museo Nacional del Prado

 

Disparates No.13, Modo de volar

Francisco Goya, 1815-1819

© Museo Nacional del Prado

 

Disparates No.5, Disparte volante

Francisco Goya, 1815-1819

© Museo Nacional del Prado

 

Disparates No.14, Disparte de Carnaval

Francisco Goya, 1815-1819

© Museo Nacional del Prado

 

The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe

Paula Rego, 1989

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

 

Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People (Paula Rego)

[Listener: Catherine Lampert]

2007

Copyrighted recording of Paula Rego for Web of Stories reproduced with permission.

 

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Paula Rego, 1989

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

British Museum

 

Little Miss Muffet III

Paula Rego, 1989

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

 

Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People (Paula Rego)

[Listener: Catherine Lampert]

2007

Copyrighted recording of Paula Rego for Web of Stories reproduced with permission.

 

Bertha’s Monkey

Paula Rego, 2002

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

 

Angel

Paula Rego, 1998

© Paula Rego

Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

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