A young woman sitting in an empty street holding a swan in her lap and plucking its feathers. There is a grey wall behind the woman and a pink building with a dark pink gate in the background.

Paula Rego at Tate Britain

The first time I saw Paula Rego’s paintings in person was over three years ago at Tate Britain, during the exhibition All too Human (it ran from 28 February until 27 August 2018). As I mentioned in my review (link here) Rego was the only woman artist who had an entire room dedicated to her paintings at that exhibition. Her large triptych The Betrothal; Lessons; The Shipwreck after ‘Marriage à la Mode’ by Hogarth (1999) was one of the most impressive and memorable works on display. When I first heard about Paula Rego’s solo exhibition at Tate Britain that was going to open in 2021 I was quite excited, and rightly so, because the current show is filled with fantastic thought-provoking pieces, including the above mentioned triptych and many more. 

I am going to share some of my favourite artworks from the exhibition, hopefully it will encourage some of my readers to check it out in person. 

The display is organised chronologically and demonstrates how the artist’s style changed in the course of her long and prolific career. In the first room we can see the Interrogation (1950), painted at a very young age (Rego was 15 at the time). It is an impressive artwork, not only because of its high quality, but also due to the serious subject, referring to the political situation in Portugal at the time.1 In the Interrogation an anonymous female figure is sitting in a chair guarded by two male figures who are shown from chest down. The woman’s limbs are contorted, face hidden in her hand. The interrogated woman is trying to take as little space as possible, as if she is trying to disappear. 

A woman sitting on a red chair in a room with dark green walls and dark yellow floor. Her limbs are contorted, her face hidden in her left hand. On each side of the woman are two male figures shown from chest down wearing white uniforms.
Paula Rego – Interrogation (1950) oil paint on canvas

Paula Rego was born (1935) and brought up in Portugal, during the period of Estado Novo (which lasted until 1974) under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. Even at a very young age Rego was aware of the injustices happening all-over the country and in the Portuguese colonies. People were arrested, tortured and imprisoned, women’s rights were severely limited by the state. One of Rego’s early Surrealism-inspired artworks referring to the situation in Portugal was titled Salazar vomiting the Homeland (1960). The title was censored to leave Salazar’s name out, but the painting was allowed to be displayed in Lisbon in 1972, which was an act of personal defiance for the artist. 

Abstract surrealist painting. Dark blue and greenish-blue background.Yellow elongated oval shape in the centre with prickly cactus-like oval at the bottom. On the left is a half white and half red amorphous shape with long tentacles. on the right is a shape resembling a yellow monkey that seems to be vomiting.
Paula Rego – Salazar vomiting the Homeland (1960) oil paint on canvas

In 1951 her parents enrolled Rego in finishing school in Kent, a year after she went to study art at the Slade in London. She later married her fellow student Victor Willing, with whom she had three children. Initially the family divided their time between England and Portugal, but in 1972 London became their permanent home where Rego lives and works today. She is considered one of the most iconic contemporary British artists. Her large paintings featuring slightly sinister-looking female figures are instantly recognisable, see for example The Soldier’s Daughter (1987) which echoes the eerie scenes painted by the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico.

A young woman sitting in an empty street holding a swan in her lap and plucking its feathers. There is a grey wall behind the woman and a pink building with a dark pink gate in the background.
Paula Rego – The Soldier’s Daughter (1987) acrylic paint on paper on canvas

Rego’s works are often not what they seem at first glance. In many instances the artworks require the viewer to notice literary and art historical references. Many of her narrative works are populated with characters from classic Portuguese folk tales, nursery rhymes, fairytales and other literary sources. Some of the most familiar characters are Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. See below Rego’s charming and humorous yet slightly unsettling Cast of Characters from Snow White (1996) inspired by both the classic German tale and the 1937 animated film by Disney. 

Two paintings on a grey wall showing a cast of characters from Snow White, dwarves, Snow White, the evil stepmother and forest animals dove, rabbit and deer. Some characters are shown multiple times and appear to walk in an uncoordinated procession from left to right, crossing from the painting on the left to the right.
Paula Rego – Cast of Characters from Snow White (1996) oil paint on paper on aluminium

Throughout her career Rego was never afraid of difficult subjects. Violence against women is one of them. However, in many of her works female protagonists are shown in sinister light in an attempt to subvert the narrative of passive female victims. In 1998 the referendum in Portugal failed to legalise abortion. In response Rego painted a series of untitled pastels (‘the Abortion pastels’) as an attempt to bring awareness about the dangers of illegal abortion and the need for proper medical provisions for women who need it. This series depicts women lying on beds or floors, visibly suffering as a result of backstreet abortions that many women were forced to undergo (abortion remained illegal in Portugal until 2007).2 Unfortunately, the topic explored in those paintings is still very current and needlessly controversial in many countries around the world. 

View of Paula Rego gallery exhibition.  Three pastel paintings on a wall showing suffering women in interiors. The images are referencing the pain the women are experiencing after abortions. On the left, a woman sitting on the floor, supporting her head on a bed. In the middle, a woman sitting on support pillow on top of a bed with white sheets, under the bed is a round red basin. On the right a woman wearing black is lying across the brown floor in front of a green armchair.
Paula Rego – Untitled pastel series, exhibition view

Worth mentioning here is The First Mass in Brazil (1993) where Rego subverted the original painting by Victor Meirelles painted in 1860. In Rego’s version the focus is on the suffering of the local women. The hollow eyes of the pregnant rape victim in the foreground tell the story of indigenous population brutally converted to Christianity, which is far from the idealised colonialist version painted by Meirelles.

The first mass in Brazil by Paula Rego. 
In the foreground a heavily pregnant woman dressed in black dress is lying on a bed facing the viewer. Her eyes are hollow and black, one hand on her stomach, the other holds the metal bedframe. The bed is covered with a red and grey covers. Behind the woman is a turkey and green leaves and white flowers. On the wall is a small painting showing Christian priest celebrating a mass at an altar on a beach surrounded by praying people. In the foreground on that painting are the Indigenous people in traditional dress and white feather headdresses.
Paula Rego – The First Mass in Brazil (1993) acrylic paint on paper on canvas

Rego is a campaigner of human rights, her more recent works address war, human trafficking or female genital mutilation. One of those paintings is War (2003), where human figures were replaced by animals and soft toys, a stylistic device common in Rego’s narrative works. This painting was a response to the news reports of civilian suffering during the invasion of Iraq. 

War by Paula Rego. 

In the centre of the painting in an empty yellow and brown landscape stands a large doll-like figure with a head of a white hare wearing a blue dress is holding a smaller figure with bloodied hare's head wearing a light pink dress. in the foreground there are two more doll-like rabbit-headed figures in dresses, a white pelican and a small human figure. In the background there are other figures looking like soft toys, dog, cat and human-like dolls.
Paula Rego – War (2003) pastel on paper on aluminium

During the sixty years of her career Rego experimented with different techniques, including: collage, oil and acrylic painting, watercolours, pastel, gouache and etching. Although the artist’s style has changed over the years, from the impact of surrealism towards realism, the artist nonetheless developed a very personal and unique style, which is instantly recognisable. 

Among my favourite paintings on display is The Artist in Her Studio (1993), one of the classic subjects in the history of art given a ‘feminist’ twist by Rego. The artist is shown sitting in the centre of her studio surrounded by artworks, props, human figures and figments of her imagination. Her strong pose and a smoking pipe in her mouth convey power and confidence, the attributes traditionally associated in art with male figures. 

The artist in her studio by Paula Rego. 
The artist is shown wearing a purple long shirt , long red skirt and long black boots, she is sitting in the centre of her studio surrounded by artworks, props, human figures and figments of her imagination. Her strong pose and a smoking pipe in her mouth convey power and confidence.  There is a cabbage and cabbage leaves on a white table in the foreground with a small mouse playing a string instrument. there is a donkey head by the table. and sculptures and paintings on the background wall, next to the artist is a small woman, and in front there is a small girl painting on canvass. In a background there is a female figure in blue dress.
Paula Rego – The Artist in Her Studio (1993) acrylic paint on canvas

One of my criticisms of previous exhibitions at Tate Britain were the overcrowded exhibition spaces. This year since the gallery was allowed to reopen, there are fewer tickets available for each time-slot to facilitate social-distancing. It is unfortunate that it took a global pandemic to fix the overcrowding issue. Less crowded rooms with no queues to see each individual painting have a positive impact on the viewing experience, especially when it comes to Rego’s narrative paintings which require quite a while to process. 

With a great selection of stunning artworks this exhibition was a pleasure to visit. It’s a rare treat to see so many works by Paula Rego under one roof. Definitely worth a trip to London. 

Paula Rego runs at Tate Britain, London 7 July – 24 October 2021


1  Elena Crippa, Fantasy & Rebellion in Paula Rego exhibition catalogue, ed. Elena Crippa, publ. Tate 2021, p.12.

2 Maria Manuel Lisboa, Paula and her women singing all alone, in Paula Rego exhibition catalogue, ed. Elena Crippa, publ. Tate 2021, p.44.

Read more:

Paula Rego exhibition catalogue, ed. Elena Crippa, publ. Tate 2021

https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/paula-rego/paula-rego online exhibition guide


  1. I only came across Paula Rego this year after seeing an article in Bazaar magazine a few months back. so your post has been great for giving a chronological view of her work. Her style is very much her own but I can also see hints of Frieda Kahlo and in “Interrogation”, Picasso..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, I could see hints of Picasso too. There were also a few earlier paintings with a nod to Dali and other surrealists. Lots of different influences pop out in Rego’s career, but her individual style is quite something. She is one of the most interesting contemporary painters in my opinion. Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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