When a Paula Rego retrospective at Tate Britain was first suggested three years ago, it was welcomed as an irresistible – an inevitable – proposal. For, as the show’s curator Elena Crippa observes, there is only a handful of contemporary female artists who have achieved comparable status. And there are not many artists who have made women their subject in the inward, intense and complicated way that Rego has over the decades – painting them in pain, power and surrender. This is the largest show of her career, with more than 100 pieces – paintings, collages, drawings, pastels, etchings, sculptures – many never seen in this country before. It will be a chance to unriddle the stories the paintings tell and to celebrate an artist of fabulous – in every sense – talent. And, as with any well-curated retrospective, it will be a way in to the narrative of Paula Rego’s own life.
In the weeks before the show’s opening, Rego – now 86 – has been gamely answering questions back and forth with me over email, with her daughter, Cas Willing, as secretary. And what has emerged as one of the remarkable things about her is that, undeterred by age and its challenges, she still goes to work every day in her Camden studio, in north London. Almost 20 years ago, I met her there and will never forget the thrill of feeling backstage – for there is a theatrical element to her work, a coming together of props, an undertow of drama. I recall a lifesize horse, racks of clothes and a couch given to her by an analyst – appropriately, given her interest in the collective unconscious (she started analysis in 1966). And it is in this studio that she continues to work with her leading lady, Lila Nunes, loyal model and friend (she is, like Rego, from Portugal).
Rego was born in Lisbon, in 1935, and grew up in Estoril and Ericeira, the fishing village where her grandparents lived. She was born into a liberal family when the country was under António de Oliveira Salazar’s Catholic right-wing dictatorship. Growing up in a country of censorship stoked her need for freedom of speech in her art. Her earliest pieces were often courageously political. Interrogation (painted with sophistication when she was 15) was about the memory of torture during the Estado Novo (New State), brought about by the 1926 military coup. In 1960, she produced the vivid abstract Salazar vomiting the Homeland and in her 1961 collage When We Had a House in the Country We’d Throw Marvellous Parties and Then We’d Go Out and Shoot Black People, she satirised Salazar’s interventions in Africa. She has never been afraid of breaking what Crippa calls “cultural silence”.
An only child, Rego was especially close to her father, an electronics engineer. “I hope I am like him,” she says in one of her emails. “He was warm, kind and generous, but with bad depressions.” And it is clear she is like him – and she has made no secret of the fact that, alongside her warmth, generosity and playfulness, she has inherited his depressive streak.
It was her father who sent her to England (to finishing school, at 16), insisting Portugal was, as she once put it, a “killer society for women”. Her mother was less of a kindred spirit: “She loved interior decorating. I hate it. She was spikier. But she was talented. She could do a person’s likeness just like that, and cut clothes without a pattern.” Rego has inherited her mother’s skills and subverted them. In her hands, traditionally feminine crafts turn militant. Homemade dolls – potentially docile and lifeless – come defiantly alive. She knows the needle – and the brush – can be mightier than the sword.
It was her mother who once told her: “A change is always good, even if it is for the worst.” In 1966, this pronouncement was tested to devastating effect. Rego’s husband, Victor Willing, whom she had met when they were both at the Slade in the 1950s, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. They had three children: two daughters and a son, whom they raised in Ericeira and, later, in London. Nick Willing has made an engaging film about his parents: Paula Rego, Secrets & Stories (2017) reveals a marriage of infidelities, unspoken jealousy and inextinguishable love. Some of Rego’s best paintings were inspired by the relationship.
She went on to pour her own pain into images such as the howling Dog Woman – an expression of a feral despair she would not have dreamed of putting into words. She has often talked about painting as a way of exploring – and perhaps exorcising – what might otherwise remain hidden. Fear, revenge, sorrow exist in her work in plain sight. The Family (1988) shows a woman and her daughter dressing a seated man who is apparently unable to help himself. It is an unnerving expression of roughness and care, the daughter is not, in any sense, up to the job.
When I asked Rego to sketch Vic in words, she replied: “Very intelligent, strong-minded, a marvellous dancer. He laughed easily. He could be fierce and tender. He took my work seriously, didn’t put me down. He knew so much about painting. He gave me good advice.”
Vic Willing died in 1988, and a few months later Rego’s show at the Serpentine stopped the art world – and ordinary gallery-goers – in their tracks. She was 53. This was the moment she went from being a struggling, little-known painter to becoming an international star. Today, she is a dame and has had a museum built in her honour in Portugal: Casa das Histórias – the House of Stories.
The career-changing paintings from that Serpentine show will be in the retrospective. For years, I had a cherished poster from that show on my wall. I thought of it as belonging to a sinister game of Happy Families: The Policeman’s Daughter (1987) is polishing her father’s boot. She has plunged one of her bare, muscled arms into it. She is duty-doing yet everything about her pose spells erotic rebellion: the insolently tucked-in knee, the swerve of the skirt, the absolute poise. But Rego’s most famous painting from this time is The Dance, in which Willing waltzes with someone else under a full moon while Rego, sad but larger than life, squares up to surviving him on her own. She had hoped to include the painting in the original Serpentine show but did not finish it in time – her wish is granted now.
Rego has always been fired by stories – Portuguese fairy tales, Jean Genet’s The Maids, Disney’s Snow White – and is alive to women’s suffering. Crippa describes her as a feminist and a realist. Her paintings about abortion (1999) are among the most eloquently shocking she ever produced. In these paintings of women who have had backstreet abortions, she avoids the trap of painterly polemic. She understands women’s bodies in all their ambivalence: betrayed and betraying. But it seems certain that when, in a 2007 referendum, the Portuguese voted in favour of abortion, Rego’s paintings played their part. Her magnificent Angel (1998), which will be in the show and which she sees as one of her most important paintings, has been said to stand for vengeance and redemption, but if you look closely at her expression, it holds you because it is unfathomable.
I went to the Tate in the last stages of the hanging – and, even in its unfinished state, there was a tremendous sense of cohesion. It was as if a far-flung family had been reunited. I was particularly bowled over by Possession (2004), a series not seen in this country before, inspired by the 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s photographs. And it is extraordinary to be able to report that the final room with work about FGM and human trafficking (made in her 70s), is no less radical than the first. Throughout, it seems that the modesty and playfulness of Paula Rego’s off-canvas self liberates her to paint women as they are – not saintly nor uncomplicatedly wronged but full of power and woe and desire.
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KK: When you look back at your earliest work, what do you feel? What has changed?
PR: The pictures have changed many times. They have to change, or they feel dead and I feel flat. You get interested in other things as you get older. I’m more interested in the Virgin Mary than in boyfriends.
What has stayed the same?
I always need a story. Without a story, I can’t get going. Maybe the story changes in the doing of it. I might discover it isn’t what I thought or intended. But I need it to find my way. I’m always looking for new stories.
Which stories have been most beckoning – and why?
I’ve found traditional Portuguese folk tales the most useful, because they are me, they are my background. I understand their brutality and perversity. They get to the root of many things. All the stories I choose are from a western tradition. I sometimes get given books of eastern tales from friends trying to be helpful, but can’t connect with them.
It seems to me that what you are often drawn to are the half-hidden stories – the stories that we can, as we look at your work, continue to unriddle in our heads. Is it possible to paint a secret?
I think it is. You discover things in the making of a painting. It can reveal things that you didn’t expect. Things you keep secret from yourself.
Do you remember painting Self-portrait in red 1966, and what was happening in your life at that time? What does it say about yourself then?
The children were little and my father was still alive. We were living in Albert Street, in Camden. My studio was on the top floor. Later, the girls slept up there and I had a big shed in the back garden. I got into a few shows, so I was excited and working well.
But I don’t like doing self-portraits. It’s very boring to look at one’s own face, it’s almost as impossible to do as still lives. What’s the story? I prefer to use Lila [Rego’s model/muse]. A few years ago, I fell down the steps at my daughter’s house in Ventnor, and my face was all bruised like I’d been in a punch-up. Much more interesting. I drew myself then.
Is Lila an alter ego?
I would not describe her like that. She is my main model and very good at it. She understands what I need from a story.
So how does your working routine go…?
Lila comes to my flat and we go to the studio by taxi. When we get in, we have a cup of tea and talk about the work we are doing that day. If I’ve found a story I’m interested in, we’ll read it many times. I’ll suggest a scene and place her in it. I’ll suggest changes to the pose and the mood – although, often, she gets it right first time. We listen to opera in the mornings. It’s La Traviata at the moment. We stop for lunch around 12.30. Lila brings in homemade soup and then we have sandwiches. I like smoked salmon and cream cheese. I often rest after lunch; try and have a quick nap. In the afternoon, we listen to fado and carry on. We have a glass of champagne before getting a taxi home.
And can I ask in what ways you have to work differently as an older artist?
It’s not so different, though I have less energy than before.
I imagine lockdown must have been very hard?
The first lockdown was very difficult. I wasn’t allowed to leave my flat. It was just Ana and me. Ana came as an au pair 25 years ago and has modelled for me and looked after everything here since then. But from Christmas, as I couldn’t work from home, my daughters took me into the studio every day to work with Lila. Thank God.
You were ahead of your time in your work about women’s bodies – how did women become your subject?
I paint the women I know. I paint what I see. I make women the protagonists because I am one.
You paint violating as well as violated women – why does it matter to show women at their worst?
It is more interesting to paint women as they are.
Were you ever afraid with your bold abortion pictures that the Portuguese authorities would try to suppress your work?
It never occurred to me they would suppress it, but it took guts to show it. Jorge Molder showed the pictures at the Gulbenkian [in Lisbon] – they’ve always supported my work. Many critics talked about the colours rather than the subject matter, but the women knew what they were about. They could see it.
Do you think your paintings helped change the law?
I hope they helped bring attention to the injustice.
Could you say something about what you witnessed, about what women endured?
At the Slade, everyone had abortions. In Ericeira, many women in the village had abortions, sometimes because they weren’t married but more often because they couldn’t feed another child. Sometimes, they would ask for money. I knew what they were going through and tried to help. I sent a woman who was haemorrhaging to my gynaecologist in Lisbon. If I had money, I would give it. It’s appalling that there was so much pain and suffering.
You have said you see these as some of your best pieces?
They were important. It was thrilling to do those pictures, because they were true. Not nice or polite, but true.
When your subject is FGM or human trafficking, how explicitly are you setting out to change minds?
Very much so: when you look at the reality of what’s happening, why wouldn’t you want to help the women?
Does painting women in the way you do take courage?
If I get something right and it works, I feel relief. If not, I feel embarrassed.
How did you establish yourself?
I couldn’t tell you. It’s not like planning what they call “a career”. It took many years. I had bad luck and good luck, good dealers and bad dealers, and just kept working. Many people helped, in Portugal and here: Robert MacPherson, Monika Kinley, Edward Totah, the Marlborough. Other artists and kind friends. I kept at it… what else would I be doing?
What have been the greatest hurdles?
Being depressed, losing the urge to work, not having new ideas.
What did your parents give you?
They gave me everything. My father especially. They sent me to England, they paid for everything. They gave us a place to live and supported us for as long as they could. They looked after the children. They had faith in my work.
What effect did being an only child have on you?
I had to entertain myself. I drew all the time from the age of four. At eight, I knew I wanted to be an artist, despite my teacher’s discouragement. She mocked my desire, because I couldn’t draw a cup and saucer. I still don’t like still lives – again, where’s the story?
How much did growing up in Lisbon under a fascist dictatorship shape the way you think?
I’m not a fan of authoritarianism. It’s crushing. My father taught me to trust no one, not even him – but he failed, because I did trust him. I only lived in Lisbon for the first few years of my life. I was diagnosed with TB and the doctors’ advice was to leave Lisbon, so my parents built a house in Estoril, which is at the mouth of the estuary, and we had more trees and good sea air. I lived between Estoril – my parents’ house – and Ericeira, which was my grandparents’ summer house – and which I loved. Ericeira had pine trees and eucalyptus trees, and orchards and chickens and rabbits. Estoril was more my mother’s domain and much more proper. She was a big one for etiquette and keeping things just so.
Do you think you’d have been a different painter if your husband, Vic Willing, had survived MS?
I’d have had different stories to tell if he hadn’t been ill. Work helped me cope. I worked my way through it. I still miss him.
In what way did Jungian analysis change your work?
It freed me up.
I get the sense that family is of paramount importance and that you have an artistic inner circle – a modelling family?
I made my family model. My daughter and granddaughters. They said I paid well.
Marina Warner refers to your “bestiary” in her catalogue essay. Why are animals so important?
Animals, like the dollies I make or collect, stand in for people. You can do things with them that would be mawkish if I used a person. Or illegal.
Play seems equally important. I sometimes have the feeling, looking at your work, that a real person might revert to becoming a straw doll, or vice versa… Is play intrinsically dangerous?
Play may be serious but it isn’t dangerous – it’s necessary.
There are questions of domination in many of your paintings. The question about who is mastering – or mistressing – whom feels particularly key in Snare (1987) and some of the Jane Eyre pieces. How far do you see relationships as a power struggle?
It’s part of it. Some people can feel more dominant than others, but a maid can have power over her mistress. The meekest person can manipulate.
What were the pleasures of working with fabric and clay? And which is your favourite medium?
My favourite is the pencil, because it is definite and precise. That’s also why I got on so well with the chalk pastels. And with the etchings. Working with fabric was something most women could do. There were no ready-made clothes when I was growing up. We had a seamstress who came to the house – Menina Francisca; she made all the clothes. We’d buy Elle patterns to make the latest fashions. My mother could sew and knit, and so could I. In the 60s I made quite a lot of tapestries: one was enormous, and all the women who came to the house would help embroider it. Making things out of fabric seems natural. After all, I can’t weld. Clay is trickier, I used that pretend clay that sets hard without firing; and sometimes papier-mache, which is simple to make – you only need newspapers and flour and water. It’s like making dolls.
Which living artists do you find most inspiring?
I’ve always liked Hockney. I bought a print from his graduation show. It hung in my house in Albert Street until we got hard up and had to sell it. In my living room, I have a Patrick Caulfield, whom I admired immensely, and a Freud print and a small painting by Jonathan Leaman. He is still alive, very much so.
Which piece of work, if you had to pick just one, gives you the greatest sense of pride?
Under Milk Wood, which I did at the Slade. Because I did it from my imagination and it won the summer prize.
What continues to matter most to you in your work?
Simply doing it matters.
And – finally – what does having a retrospective at the Tate mean to you?
It means a lot. I never thought I’d live to see the day. Not long to wait now. Wish me luck.