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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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..
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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!
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