Paula Rego: A Painter and a Storyteller

Paula Rego is one of the most influential British and Portuguese artists, whose works served as an inspiration for countless generations to come. Culling from children literature, old folks stories, Disney cartoons and grim fairy tales, artist Paula Rego juxtaposes fantasy and reality, innocence and cruelty, to depict the contradictions of human life. By confronting the personal and the political, the artist explores complex political issues and personal family tragedies, putting women and girls at the forefront of her grotesque narratives. 

The Artist in Her Studio - painting by Paula Rego
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Paula Rego ‘The Artist in Her Studio‘ via TATE

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Early Life and Influences

Born in Portugal in 1935, Paula Rego is one of the most relevant contemporary female artists. She got interested in art at an early age under the influence of her mother, who was also an artist. When she was one year old, her parents moved to the United Kingdom for work purposes, but Paula remained in her grandmother’s care until 1939. The grandmother was a pivotal figure in her formative years telling her the folk stories that will later become the main inspiration for her work.

Apart from traditional Portuguese stories, the artist’s work was particularly influenced by growing up in autocratic systems. When she was born, the country was under the fascist regime of Estado Novo, who was later replaced by another oppressive regime, that of António de Oliveira Salazar. The hardships of growing up under dictatorship are frequently visible in her paintings. 

Rego was always in close contact with British culture. Even while in Lisbon, she attended an English language school and was homeschooled by a woman who read her the gems of British literature. This overlapping of Portuguese and British literature for children will leave a permanent mark on Rego’s career. In 1951 she enrolled into the Grove school in Kent before moving on to The Slade School Of Fine Art where she met her future husband Victor Willing. They lived between Portugal and the United Kingdom until the political turmoil in Portugal caused them to move permanently to the UK. 

War - painting by Paula Rego at TATE
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Next talk: Artist in Focus: Paula Rego, October 21st at 6.30pm BST @LEVEL

Paula Rego’s Dark Fairytails

The artist began to paint politically charged masterpieces as a teen, producing a painting dedicated to the ruling fascist regime when she was 15. Depictions of war, soldiers and dictatorship will remain a recurrent topic in her work. A series of paintings dealing with life in such a regime frequently features female characters cleaning the boots of their male siblings or members of the army, symbolising the connection between patriarchy and military oppression. 

The very first commission Paula Rego ever got came from her father, who commissioned her to do a mural for a family factory in their hometown. However, her career truly skyrocketed in 1962 when she began to exhibit with the London Group, which assembled some of the most famous UK artists like David Hockney, and Frank Auerbach. 

Old folk stories, fairy tales, and cartoons represent the basis of the artist’s most renowned works. Playful and childish, her artworks appear familiar, reminding people of their childhood, instantly drawing them in. However, these pieces often convey a surrealist, nightmarish atmosphere. Many of her works give an unusual grotesque twist to children’s stories and fairytales. For example, the recognizable story of Snowhite has had numerous strange interpretations, as Rego painted her once as a middle-aged woman and another time as a little girl playing with her father’s trophies. 

Powerful Female Figures and Political Art

Paula Rego often painted issues that were inherently female, putting the strong female figure in the centre of her stories. One of her most famous pieces, the Dog woman, for instance, shows a female figure on her knees, twisted and howling like a dog. Inspired by Degas, Rego made a series of paintings featuring ballerinas. 

Though the style of her works resembled that of a famous Impressionist artist, Rego’s ballerinas are visibly older and bulkier. Dressed in black costumes, they are doing their best to recreate the energy of youth. Packed with emotions, the series entitled Dancing Ostriches powerfully depicts the grotesque, obscure, and vulnerable side of human experience. Equally disturbing were her artworks portraying personal narratives, frequently depicting her children and her husband and his battle with multiple sclerosis.

At times, Paula Rego painted stories that would deal with current political issues. For example, when a referendum to legalize abortions failed in Portugal, she made a series of paintings, highlighting the fear and danger of illegal abortions, which had a huge influence on the 2nd (this time successful) campaign for legalization. That hasn’t been the only time she got politically involved. In 2007, she participated in a campaign to raise awareness about human trafficking and later in 2009 created paintings regarding female genital mutilation. Once she said that in her paintings, she wanted to give her female characters the justice they deserved and often could not get in their real life. 

The Dance - painting by Paula Rego
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By Paula Rego via BBC Culture

Enter a Surreal World of Paula Rego

To celebrate the surreal imagery of Paula Rego, this October, Tate Britain will organise the artist’s largest retrospective to date, featuring over 100 of her paintings, sculptures, collages, pastels, etchings, and ink and pencil drawings. Coinciding with the show, our expert speaker Bojana Popovic will hold an hour-long talk putting the surrealist, figurative paintings of Paula Rego into the spotlight. Whether you are encountering the work of Paula Rego for the first time, or you just want to brush up on your knowledge before the upcoming show, this talk will be a great opportunity to learn more about the artist who permanently changed the landscape of both British and contemporary art. 

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