Paula Rego is a figurative painter of astonishing power who addresses feminist and gender issues in unsettling contexts. Her subjects are placed in tableaux-like settings, where the light source seems to be invisible. Rego’s work is inspired by fairy tales, legends, religion, cinema, animals, and cartoons. Her work combines these elements with images of women and animals, taken from cartoons or commercial advertisements, as she creates surrealist scenes with strong psychological undercurrents.
Born in Lisbon, Rego grew up under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. When she was only 15, she painted “Interrogation,” which showed a woman sitting in front of her interrogators with her head down in despair. One man holds a drill, while the second is ready to rape her. This allusion to sexual torture will be seen again in later works.
Rego entered the Slade School of Art in London in 1952 but returned to Portugal with the British painter Victor Willing whom she married and with whom she had three children. While her husband was encouraging and recognized her talent, Rego found it difficult to work. The couple moved back to London permanently in 1976 and when her youngest child was self-sufficient, she began again to work with fervor. By the 1980s, she was painting anthropomorphic canvases that played out the frictions in her marriage. Therapy helped her realize that in “Wife Cuts off Monkey’s Tail” she was showing her attempts to become independent from her husband both as a wife and as an artist. Her breakthrough work could be seen in two acrylic paintings done in 1981: “Criatura Encarnada,” and “Half Ant – Half Lion.”
In 1983, Rego undertook a series of large works on paper named after four operas, where her ‘bad girls’ make their first appearance, lifting their skirts to appall passers-by. She began the flow of unforgettable animal images as a way of saying the unsayable. Her 1985 “The Sandman” contains a direct reference to Goya’s “El Sueno de la Razon Produce Monstros.”
In the “Vivian Girls” series of 1984-1985, the bad girls’ rebellion reaches its most strident expression as sensitive pigs and birds tangle with insensitive females and lecherous vegetables in crammed works that look like medieval illustrations of religious legends. In 1987, her “The Policeman’s Daughter,” with a girl polishing a jackboot held at an angle as if it were goose-stepping, and her “The Little Murderess,” with a young girl about to strangle someone unseen, are vessels of ambiguous content. In 1988, her husband died and left her a letter in which he said, ” I know you will paint even better. Trust yourself and you will be your own best friend.” Afterwards, Rego painted “The Dance,” a nocturnal composition in which her late husband appears twice: once with her and once with another woman.
Since 1993, Rego has chosen to work almost exclusively in pastel, redefining the limits of a medium that facilitates her urgent and emotive technique. Rego finished the highly-acclaimed “Dog Women” series of 1995. Rego’s friend Lila Nunes was the model for most of this cycle. These paintings brought the sense of anatomical drama and animalism, which explored hidden truths of womanhood through bestiality.
Rego did a series, painted around the turn of the millennium, that restaged Christian themes in a contemporary setting and which made use of figures descending from or slumped at the foot of her studio ladder. This echoes the religious and art-historical theme of Christ’s Deposition from the cross.
In paintings and triptychs such as “Martha Mary and Magdalene” 1999; “The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth” 1999; “Deposition” 2001- while totally secular invokes a sense of religious narrative; “The Plowman” 2004; and “Human Cargo” 2007, Rego repeatedly uses the ladder as a powerful pictorial image to represent a tool and an instrument of Christ’s Passion. “We make sense of the world through stories,” Rego has said, “It’s the only thing we’ve got. All religions are stories, the Bible is stories, history is a form of storytelling . . that’s how you give life some structure.”
Recently Rego has addressed female genital mutilation and human trafficking in works featuring masked characters and soft sculptural figures. These theatrical compositions draw in her audience with a false sense of security before the viewers realize the full horror of what they are seeing.
In 2017, her son Nick Willing directed a documentary on his mother, “Paula Rego, Secrets and Stories.” Rego’s figurative paintings are exhibited in major museums and galleries. She has received numerous awards for her work. The Tate Gallery in London and the Centro Cultural de Belem in Lisbon have featured major retrospectives of her work. She has twice shown at the Bienal in Sao Paolo and in 1990 became the first Associate Artist of the National Gallery in London. Rego is part of the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale in 2022. Her work, “The Milk of Dreams,” is to be shown in the Central Pavilion.