Growing up in a dictatorship gives you two choices: you either conform or confront. Paula Rego (1935) chose the latter, but was too shy to speak up. So she used her paintings to voice the fear, violence against women and social inequality in the Portugal under Salazar.
Paula Rego’s parents were antifascists and anglophiles and wanted a better life for their daughter. After having frequented the English School in Portugal, Rego was send to finishing school in England. At 17 she enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Arts in London and formalised her training as an artist which had already started in the English School in Portugal.
When accepted at the Slade, the admissions committee assumed ‘she’ll go off and get married quite quickly’ but she proved them all wrong. She not only completed her training, she even won a prize at the summer exhibition of the school. At the Slade, she also met and eventually married one of the most promising artists of those days, Victor Willing and stood by him for twenty years while he was slowly dying from MS.
The Portuguese dictatorship and its abuse of women remained a source of inspiration even after it finally ended in 1974, as can be seen in the extremely confrontational The Abortion series. Having had ‘lots of abortions’ she was furious that the 1998 referendum to legalise abortion under certain circumstances was unsuccessful. This resulted in ten large pastels that show women, or rather teenagers, squirming on a bed or crawling over the floor after having had an illegal abortion. Her hope was that they would help next time around and they did for in 2007 abortion was legalised in Portugal.
Apart from her political engagement, dealing with Willing’s illness is also featuring in many of her works. By using cartoons she allowed herself great liberty to tackle their relationship as can be seen in Wife Cuts off Red Monkey’s Tail.
A third source of inspiration have been the arts in general. For instance The Vivian Girls as Windmills was inspired by Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal’ and Eça de Queirós’ The Sin of Father Amaro resulted in the powerful Angel of the Father Amaro series. Inspiration from film and theatre can be found in the works Pinocchio and The Pillow man.
All works mentioned above are part of the exhibition of Paula Rego which is currently running at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague until March 20. It is not an easy exhibition so be prepared to be shocked, fascinated and confronted with you own inner self. Wendy Fossen 30th January 2022
Listen to Wendy Fossen talking to Souwie Buis about the exhibition on ArtsTalk Radio
The Paula Rego exhibition continues at Kunstmuseum in The Hague until 20th March