Paula Rego on injustice, depression and the drive to create
Art Fund director Jenny Waldman asks Paula Rego about her work and life in Portugal and the UK, against the backdrop of her 2021 retrospective at Tate Britain.
A version of this article first appeared in the autumn 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
Who was Paula Rego?
Born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1935 – shortly after the country’s repressive authoritarian leader António de Oliveira Salazar came to power – Paula Rego spent most of her life in London, after studying at the Slade School of Art, where she met her husband, artist Victor Willing (1928-88). Working in paint, pastel, drawing and print, she rose to international prominence with her emotionally powerful and frequently surreal figurative images, which draw on experiences from her own life, as well as from wider social and political injustices, art history, fairy tales and folklore. The resulting narratives confront complex human relationships that combine passion, power and play, in particular relating to the experiences of women. Rego died at her home in north London, on 8 June 2022, aged 87.
Jenny Waldman: Your father was an electrical engineer and your mother had been to art school. Could you describe what life was like for you when you were growing up?
Paula Rego: It was pretty good. I was very spoilt by my grandparents. I loved them and lived with them when my parents went to England so that my father could finish his engineering degree. You’re supposed to feel sad when your parents leave, but I don’t remember that.
JW: At the very young age of 15 years old you made a painting called Interrogation (1950), which depicts a pained, hunched figure, seated on a chair between two oppressive standing figures. What led you to create that particular work?
PR: I had heard about interrogations from my father; the State was looking for subversives and plotters, I guess. Everyone had to be very careful what they said in case someone reported them to the PIDE (secret police). My father taught me that you couldn’t trust anyone as you didn’t know who might turn you in. It was a fascist country and all the news was censored. We would listen to the BBC World Service to find out what was going on. I was painting rather expressionistic paintings at the time, and this was a dramatic subject for me to tackle.
JW: When you came to England you were very young. What was it like to come here at that time?
PR: When I first arrived in England, in 1951, I was 16. I was sent to a finishing school in Kent, where they taught me the Japanese tea ceremony. There was still rationing at the time but I ate all the puddings which my schoolmates, worried about their waistlines, left over. After a few months I weighed 88 kilos. At Easter, I met up with my parents in Paris and I was so fat my mother didn’t recognise me and put me on a diet at once. I thought finishing school was a terrible waste of time but, fortunately, there was an encouraging art teacher called Mr Bradshaw. He knew someone who taught at Chelsea art school and made an introduction for me, and I went there for an interview; I was 17 by then. I took a train to London with my portfolio. They offered me a place but my guardian, David Phillips, heard that there had been some scandal about a girl getting pregnant at Chelsea so he advised my father that it was better to try somewhere else. He knew someone at the Slade School of Art and managed to persuade them to take me on a part-time basis. I went in every day. I didn’t stay to collect my diploma, but I left there with a baby.
“People don’t want to think about injustices against women. Paying attention is the least I can do. I’m not a writer; I’m a painter. I use what I have” Paula Rego
JW: What were your first impressions of the Slade?
PR: I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. When I first went, I lived in a women’s boarding house in St John’s Wood, near where my guardian worked. I remember we all chipped in to go and see Maria Callas at the Royal Opera House. Later, I shared a flat with my friend Teresa Black; she was at the Slade too. She was unlucky that her father disapproved of her going, whereas mine always supported me. To start, we did drawing from plaster casts in the model room. I hated it, it was very boring; it’s much better to draw from live models. There was a model I liked very much – she had bells on her slippers.
JW: What influenced your work while you were studying at the Slade (aside from meeting your future husband)?
PR: One inspiration was meeting [LS] Lowry. He looked at my work and said: ‘I couldn’t do that!’ He wanted to buy one of my pictures, which was very flattering. And having the artist Willy Townsend as my tutor – he encouraged me and was helpful in every way he could be. He and [fellow artist] William Coldstream visited me in hospital when I had my baby. Lowry never did buy a painting. I admired many of the other students. I felt foreign – I was a ‘dago’ – but it was inspiring to be living in a free city. And, apart from the odd exception, I was encouraged to do my own work in my own way.
JW: Works such as your ‘Abortion’ series were influential in the successful campaign to legalise abortion in Portugal in 2007. More recently, you have made work on the subject of female genital mutilation. These are powerful responses to injustices, particularly against women. Why is it important for you to respond to these issues in your work?
PR: People don’t want to think about these things; it’s not polite, so they turn away and women suffer. Paying attention is the least I can do. I’m not a journalist or a writer; I’m a painter. I use what I have.
JW: You have made many images that explore the strange and often cruel world of children’s nursery rhymes, songs and folk tales. These are both humorous and sinister – and you appear to take the child’s view of the world. What is it about this form of story that appeals to you?
PR: Exactly as you say, because they are sinister and humorous. The stories are ready-made; they created images. With the nursery rhymes, the images were there when I woke up in the morning, and I almost couldn’t keep up.
JW: Animals and animal-human hybrids are a recurrent feature in your images. What do they represent in your work?
PR: They stand in for people. You can do more with them, such as boss them about. Sometimes it’s a shortcut to a feeling. In War (2003) [a large pastel work in which the central protagonist is carrying a wounded figure, evocative of a scene from a battlefield], I felt it would be too maudlin and sentimental to use people, so I used rabbits.
JW: You were the National Gallery in London’s first Associate Artist (from 1989-90). What was that experience like, and what resulted from it?
PR: The first thing I did was paint Time – Past and Present (1990). I put our friend Keith [Sutton] in it and my granddaughter, Lola; she was a baby then. It was scenes from my life – Luzia [the family’s housekeeper] in the doorway with that beautiful light in Ericeira [where the family house was in Portugal]. Colin Wiggins [former special projects curator at the National Gallery], was extremely helpful, telling me about the stories behind the paintings in the gallery.
JW: Your own studio is full of props, dolls, toy animals, fabrics – and the regular presence of Lila Nunes, your assistant and model for many years. What do you enjoy about a theatrical studio space like that?
PR: Theatre is right. They are a repertory company with many regulars who I cast in different roles. Sometimes they get offers elsewhere. My ‘blind sister’ got snapped up and lives in China now.
JW: Your Tate Britain exhibition includes a number of pastels from your 2004 ‘Possession’ series. What is the story behind those images?
PR: Mostly, it’s about depression. The woman feels wrong in her own body. It’s depression that is possessing her. She is emoting her feelings, not caring who is looking, maybe overtaken by a religious ecstasy or the hysterics photographed by [19th-century French neurologist] Jean-Martin Charcot. I’ve had bad depressions and my father was depressed most of the time too. The couch [depicted in the works] belonged to my therapist, Dr Hurst, and he gave it to me when he retired.
JW: You’ve been described as ‘uncompromising’. You once showed me the lithographs you’d made in response to a commission from a wine company to make labels for their wine. Your drawings showed women in various states of drunkenness as well as bottle-feeding red wine to a baby. At the time you joked that you were surprised that they didn’t use your drawings for their wine labels. Have you undertaken any other commissions since?
PR: They were supposed to be for wine labels, so I drew my experience of wine. I loved drinking wine, always red wine. I was sent a lawyer’s letter threatening to sue me if I brought the Portuguese wine industry into disrepute. I was amazed. They wanted to pretend that wine doesn’t make you drunk, which of course it does. I loved that about wine. I have done some projects for people since. I am always looking for stories so it can help to be asked, and if I find something of myself in the stories. There was a lot of myself in those wine labels and they didn’t go to waste; they were used in a book called O Vinho [Wine] by João de Melo.
JW: In 2009 a new public museum to house your work, the Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, opened [in Cascais, just west of Lisbon]. What does it mean to have your own museum?
PR: An artist doesn’t need a museum to feel proud of their work, but of course, it is a great honour, especially when it is such a beautiful one. My favourite museum is the Prado in Madrid. It’s full of marvellous paintings: Goya, Velázquez, Murillo…
JW: I remember coming on holiday to Portugal, with your family, to the house in Ericeira in 1974, the first summer after the Carnation Revolution and the end of fascism in Portugal, earlier that year. It must have been an extraordinary time for you. I was too young to ask you about it at the time, so I’d love to ask you now what you thought about that moment – at the end of an oppressive dictatorship and the beginning of democracy?
PR: It happened in April, when we were all in London. I was sad my father hadn’t lived to see it. It was exciting that, at last, Portugal was becoming part of a democratic Europe. It took a little longer in Spain, of course – they had to wait for Franco to die. Salazar was already dead, so his project had already lost some power. Stephen Spender had said to Vic [Victor Willing] that Salazar was more of a benevolent dictator. There is no such thing, of course. Many of the people in power got on a plane to Brazil, taking their money with them, and governments came and went very quickly before it settled down. Practically, for us it was a big upheaval. The workers in the factory Vic managed, my father’s factory, were very angry at us. They thought we were rich and had denied them better pay and so on, and one time they locked Vic in a cupboard. Everything we owned in Portugal had been mortgaged to support the factory, so when money left the country, the banks foreclosed on the loans, and we had to sell the Quinta [the family’s estate]. It was all a terrible worry.
JW: Your house in Ericeira was beautiful. I remember the big old kitchen and the table in the centre with ant powder around each leg to stop the ants from getting to the food. Your mother was there, and you and Vic worked every day in the barn. What was your relationship to your work at that time?
PR: We were anxious about money, anxious about everything. Vic was sick, my work wasn’t going well, I was depressed, and it felt dead. But I kept going – what else was I to do?
JW: Do you still have that drive?
PR: I go to my studio four times a week; Wednesdays, I’m at home dealing with bills and so on. I still have some energy for work; it is the most important thing in my life, and I keep hoping to do something better. Maybe today.
A version of this article first appeared in the autumn 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.