Paula Rego Retrospective: Fear, Feminism And Fairy Tales

Always ahead of her time, Paula Rego has done much to highlight injustices to women. This show offers a rare chance to see paintings from a stellar career that spans 70 years

By Martha Alexander

12 June 2021

uring one of her earliest interviews, in 1965, Paula Rego was asked why she painted, to which she responded: “to give fear a face”.

The 86-year-old artist has never strayed from this reason over her seven-decade career which is laid bare in a forthcoming retrospective at Tate Britain.

The show is the largest exhibition of her work to date, composed of 11 “chapters” filled with figurative drawings, paintings, and prints that frequently borrow from folklore and fairy tales.

Paula Rego - Possessions I 2004

Rego has had a museum named after her; a previous retrospective was compelled to open 24 hours a day such was visitor demand; her paintings can fetch well over £1 million at auction; she’s a Dame, and she’s at the top of an industry dominated by men.

“More than any other painter, her work has retained a quality that is raw and fresh and has never aged,” says Elena Crippa, who curated the Tate Britain retrospective. “Paula is an extraordinary woman – she is incredibly generous and open-minded.”

Yet despite her accomplishments, fear is a governing force in Rego’s work.

But it is not a cowering, shrinking terror – quite the opposite. While her pieces can be menacing, they are not simply indulgent horror shows: Rego has consistently used her work to highlight injustices and honour feminism.

Her Abortion Series (1998-1999) was in response to her home country of Portugal failing to legalise state-paid termination on demand – and the haunting images of women in pain following “backstreet abortions” from that body of work is credited with helping to eventually “liberalise” abortion in Portugal in 2007.

Paula Rego - The Pillowman

These works are uncomfortable – agony etched on the faces of her subjects, bleak backdrops, and buckets for blood. Some of the girls wear school uniforms. Rego has said that this series is one of the aspects of her career she is “most proud of having done”.

“She demonstrates emotional intelligence and an understanding of women’s bodies and our engagement with the world,” says Crippa. “No one from so early on explored all of these taboos, personal issues and the experience of how women are constrained.”

Rego was born in 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal, then under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, whose patriarchal brutality had a major effect on her. Some of her earliest works are criticisms of his regime under which women could not vote unless they had secondary education (whereas men only had to prove literacy) or leave the country without their husbands’ permission.

The earliest painting in the Tate retrospective, Interrogation, has never before been shown in the UK and was made in 1950 when Rego was just 15 years old.

Paula Rego - The Artist in her Studio

“She represents a woman being tortured by two men,” explains Elena Crippa. “From a very early age, Paula had extraordinary imagination and empathy. Whenever she heard about injustice or abuse, she responded through her work.”

Interrogation set the tone for the rest of her career. Rego, who studied at The Slade School of Fine Art has always made her women heroes. They are survivors and they are strong – even in the face of horror, pain, and cruelty.

She gives them, if not always control, a certain dignity. For all of her fears, Rego isn’t afraid of splayed leg ungainliness or displays of agony or loss of composure. She deals with the stark reality of womanhood in scenes of dreamlike ambiguity accented by figures from a fairy tale or nursery rhyme: she did an entire series of etchings on the latter – dedicated to the dark sides of Little Miss Muffet, Mother Goose et al.

Rego’s inner child is ever-present, it is there in every little girl she paints, in the toys that litter the backdrops of her subjects – and in her north London studio. Along with high ceilings, a generous skylight, and trolleys of pastels, are heaps of dolls and stuffed animals. Her complex, adult ideas are often carried by these benign or innocent vehicles.

“There is certainly allegory – she uses animals as metaphors,” says Crippa. “This helps her speak of difficult things.”

Paula Rego - Love

Rego’s Dog Women series saw her depict women scratching and squatting – one sleeps on her owner’s coat with a bowl of food on the floor next to her. These are unflattering portraits of femininity, offering a bestial, raw physicality. Rego has consistently sought to show women as they are and not an idealised version caught via a male gaze.

Aside from a celebration of a truly stellar career, the Rego retrospective feels necessary in 2021 – when our reality is manipulated by social media and there are still so many instances of gender disparity. Her work is a reminder of how far we’ve come, but also how much more there is to do.

“She brings a truth to how we experience life,” says Crippa. “She brings her dark side and the darkness in society to the fore. There’s something courageous about that.”

Paula Rego - The Dance

Paula Rego is at Tate Britain from 7 July to 24 October 2021.

The Short Stack

Artist Paula Rego has never shied away from depicting the harsh realities and injustices women face. The Tate exhibition showcases her outstanding career is one not to miss.

By Martha Alexander

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