A Revolutionary Retrospective: Paula Rego
by Lori Stranger | 19 October 2021
The Tate Britain’s Paula Rego exhibition spans her 70-year career in a long overdue celebration of her powerful artistry. Exhibiting over a hundred paintings, collages, drawings and etchings, the Tate has created the most comprehensive retrospective of her most powerful works to date yet successfully leaves the viewer hungry for more. Born in 1935, Rego grew up in Lisbon, Portugal, under the fascist Estado Novo regime. The daughter of an anti-fascist electrical engineer father, she developed an early awareness of the oppressive socio-political climate and in particular the regime’s restriction of women’s rights and opportunities. The exhibition accordingly begins with Rego’s 1950 painting, Interrogation which she completed when she was just fifteen years old. The painting portrays the contorted form of a seated woman while her hunched back and clawed hand gripping her head conveys her agony. The distressed figure is surrounded by two menacing male forms, giving the viewer the impression that she may never escape her torment. Interrogation was a direct response to the Estado Novo’s oppressive terror of which Rego said, it ‘was a deadly killer society for women. And I despised it for that’.
Paula Rego, Interrogation, 1950, oil paint on canvas (Image: Fad Magazine)
Increasingly concerned about the state of his beloved country, in 1954 Rego’s father sought to provide his daughter with a more liberal upbringing. He subsequently sent Rego to a finishing school in the UK. Her artistic talent continued to flourish in England and the following year Rego attended The Slade School of Fine Art where she would meet her future husband Victor Willing. The school’s unrestrictive program encouraged Rego to use her imagination and draw upon her home country for her subject matter. In 1954, she won the prestigious Slade Summer Composition prize for Under Milk Wood. This marvellous painting, included in the Tate exhibition, recalls her childhood with three gossiping Portuguese women situated in a homely kitchen interior.
Paula Rego, Under Milk Wood, 1954, oil paint on canvas (Image: UCL Art Museum)
In the 1960s, Rego became increasingly preoccupied with social justice and particularly the objectification of women. She employed the technique of collage to characterise the degrading objectification to which women were subjected. In her 1960 painting Turkish Bath, Rego juxtaposes French and British newspaper clippings of cosmetic advertisements with erotic imagery taken from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ similarly named 1862 painting The Turkish Bath. By the 1980s Rego’s challenge against the patriarchy took a darker turn, seen for example in her 1988 painting The Family. The painting represents a wife and daughter restraining a patriarchal husband while a girl disturbingly blocks off the room’s only open window. The background reference to St George slaying a dragon alludes to Rego’s desire to slay the beast of societal patriarchy. Rego’s engagement with the female body reached new levels in the 1990s, displayed in perhaps the exhibition’s most affecting room. Responding to Portugal’s failed 1998 referendum seeking to legalise abortion, Rego produced a series of ten pastels featuring women in the aftermath of illegal backstreet abortions. Vulnerably posed women crouched or hunched in pain confront the viewer with their suffering forms. The decision to hang Rego’s 1998 powerful Angel pastel in the same room as the abortion series reinforces the women’s dignified strength amidst suffering. The angel’s figure is adorned in an armour-like vest, holding a dagger and sponge in her outstretched hands. Her direct gaze, confident stance and upturned lips indicate her rebellious power. In 2007, Rego’s series formed part of Portugal’s successful campaign to legalise abortion.
Paula Rego, Untitled No.1, 1998, pastel on paper (Image: National Galleries of Scotland)
Throughout her 70-year career Rego remained committed in her goal to be taken seriously as an artist – a difficult challenge in the late 20th century’s misogynistically tainted art world. The Tate exhibition affords the opportunity to see if her wish ‘to be in the big boys’ club, with the great painters I admired’ succeeded. Her 1990 appointment as the first artist-in-residence at London’s National Gallery constituted a major step both for her and for women. She challenged the male Old Masters ranging from Velazquez to Hogarth by adapting their work to emphasis women’s struggle. In her 1999 painting The Betrothal Lessons: after ‘Marriage a la Mode by Hogarth’, she reimagines Hogarth’s series to emphasise women’s plight. Through her version, the viewer sees the heroine grow from an innocent young bride-to-be, taught by her own mother to perform ‘womanhood’ to an impoverished older wife, upon whom her destitute husband relies. Rather than simply join ‘the big boys club’, Rego, through her startling realism and affecting narratives, smashes it open. She does not only inform the viewer of women’s plight but also actively confronts them with their own complicity. Rego’s provocative art demands the viewer’s attention. In her own words, ‘I try and get justice for women… at least in the pictures… Revenge too…’.
Notes: (1) Quoted in ‘The Fury and Mischief of Paula Rego’, Anna Russell, The New Yorker. (2) Quoted in Paula Rego: The Artist Who Helped Change the World, BBC. (3) Ibid. Bibliography: ‘Paula Rego: The Artist Who Helped Change the World’, Beverley D’Silva, BBC. Accessed 17th October 2021. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210709-paula-rego-is-this-britains-greatest-living-artist ‘The Fury and Mischief of Paula Rego’, Anna Russell, The New Yorker, Accessed 17th October 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-fury-and-mischief-of-paula-rego ‘The Life and Work of Paula Rego’, Imogen Greenhalgh, The Royal Academy. Accessed 17th October 2021. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/paula-rego-life-work