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The life and work of Paula Rego

Published 29 August 2021

Paula Rego RA discusses music, marriage and portraying the pregnant body with Imogen Greenhalgh.

  • Imogen Greenhalgh is Deputy Editor of the RA Magazine.

    • In the morning, Paula Rego likes opera

      In the afternoon, the artist prefers fado, the plaintive music of her native Portugal. Rego inherited her love of opera from her father, who would often take her to see performances in Lisbon while she was growing up.

      Born in 1935, Rego had an upbringing that was “formal” but “mostly happy”, she says, the only child in a well-off liberal family. But the Regos, like the rest of Portugal, lived under the repression of fascist dictator Antonio Salazar until 1968; outside the home censorship was rife, and civil liberties, particularly those of women, ruthlessly circumscribed.

      The young Rego was soon conscious of the confluence of violence and power – forces she faced through drawing, and which are an abiding theme in her art. What scares her most, now she is in her eighties? “Not being able to work,” she replies.

      Paula Rego, Interrogation

      Paula Rego, Interrogation.

      Private Collection, London © Paula Rego.

    • Her model Lila Nunes is a kind of alter ego

      Nunes has been Rego’s foremost model since the late 1980s, and the pair work almost intuitively together, with Nunes interpreting Rego’s thinking through her poses, even acting as her surrogate in Rego’s compositions: “She is me in many of my paintings,” the painter has said.

      Aside from artmaking, their day-to-day routine is enviably civilised: for lunch, they eat homemade Portuguese soup, and enjoy a glass of Champagne at the end of the working day.

      Paula Rego, Love

      Paula Rego, Love.

      Private Collection, London © Paula Rego.

    • Marriage was a profound influence

      Rego met her husband, the British painter Victor Willing, at art school – both studied at the Slade School in the 1950s. Willing was seven years Rego’s senior, and already married when she became pregnant by him; deciding to keep the child, Rego left England for Portugal, and Willing followed, beginning a partnership that would endure until his death in 1988 from complications relating to multiple sclerosis.

      Willing was, the artist says, her most perceptive critic, providing her with robust feedback, even at the very end. One of the last works she made in his lifetime was The Maids (1988), rendered in acrylic on paper stuck to a canvas. She removed it from its stretcher so that she could carry it to his bedside. “Thank goodness Vic was an artist,” she says. “We talked about painters and paintings all the time… Some men are jealous of their wives’ work but he never was – he had no reason to be.”

      Paula Rego , The Dance

      Paula Rego, The Dance, 1988.

      Tate © Paula Rego.

    • Her studio resembles a theatre backstage

      It is littered with dolls, puppets and props, as well as racks of costumes which Rego uses to orchestrate the scenes that become the basis of her compositions.

      The room is windowless and she prefers it that way, allowing her to immerse herself fully in her psychic world. During the pandemic, she has been fixated with drawing the Virgin Mary – the central figure in one of Rego’s most high-profile commissions, for the chapel of the presidential palace in Lisbon.

      Invited by President Jorge Sampaio in 2002, Rego made Nossa Senhora, a cycle of scenes in pastel from the Virgin’s life. In one, The Nativity (2002), the Madonna lies prostrate in the lap of the Archangel, clutching her pregnant stomach, a strikingly vulnerable figure.

      Today, this religious series is still special to Rego, and she keeps one work from the cycle on her bedroom wall. “Of all my pictures,” she says, “these were the most fun to make.”

      Paula Rego, The Artist in Her Studio

      Paula Rego, The Artist in Her Studio, 1993.

      Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. / Bridgeman Images © Paula Rego.

    • Pregnancy has been a longstanding motif

      Most prominently so in her extraordinary series Untitled: The Abortion Pastels, from 1998-99, a landmark in her career. Showing lone women in backstreet clinics, their legs splayed or bodies hunched in pain, these were Rego’s response to a referendum in Portugal that failed to legalise the procedure – making the works, she says, felt like “a necessity”.

      Her unflinching approach to the subject matter paid off. They were shown in Portugal, and received widespread publicity, bringing the debate to the mainstream. In 2007, when a second vote was held, abortion was finally made legal.

      Paula Rego , Self-portrait in Red

      Paula Rego, Self-portrait in Red, 1966.

      Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporanea do Chiado (Lisbon, Portugal) © Paula Rego.

    • This summer, Tate Britain presents a sweeping show of her work

      It will trace shifts in Rego’s style, starting with the work she made in her teens and as a student at the Slade, which was figurative. That, she says, was “the only work I could do – I couldn’t pretend to do abstract pictures. I didn’t know how”.

      After leaving college she experimented with collage, and a wilder, more surreal style inspired, in part, by Jean Dubuffet. But by the 1980s she had circled back to a figurative mode, making the work which came most naturally. “When Vic died, he left me a note telling me to trust myself and I would be my own best friend. It was a very kind gift.”

      What advice would she give now to her younger self, if she had the chance? “Be brave,” she replies.

      Paula Rego, The Raft

      Paula Rego, The Raft, 1985.

      Private Collection, London © Paula Rego.

  • Paula Rego is at Tate Britain, London, 7 July–24 Oct. A show of Rego’s prints is at Cristea Roberts, London, 8 July–11 Sep (closed 1–30 Aug).

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