Paula Rego was born in Lisbon on 26 January 1935. She grew up in a republican and liberal family, linked to both English and French culture, and studied at St. Julian's School in Carcavelos, spending her childhood and adolescence in Estoril. In the 1950s, her father encouraged her to pursue her artistic career away from the Portugal of Salazar's dictatorship, and Paula Rego enrolled at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London, aged just 17. She met several artists at the school, including her future husband, Victor Willing, whom she married in 1959 and with whom she would later have three children.
Paula Rego in her Studio
Having divided her time between Portugal and London throughout the 1960s, Paula Rego settled permanently in London in 1976. However, she continued to visit Portugal frequently, returning mostly to her family home in Ericeira. This house was to become a regular feature of her artistic work, since it held many memories and evoked images relating to a certain "Portuguese culture" she associated with her childhood. A further link to Portuguese culture would come later, in the form of Lila Nunes, Vic's former nurse, who is of Portuguese background and has been Paula's favourite model since 1988. Lila Nunes, who has known the Willing family since she first came to nurse Victor Willing, has modelled for numerous Rego pictures. As she had done for the dog women, Rego drew the finished pictures for The Ostriches (below) direct from Nunes' poses:
Paula Rego, Dancing Ostriches, 1995
Paula Rego's work got her important recognition fairly early on in her career but it was in particular after the 1990s, when the artist was already in her fifties, that she became a fundamental reference not only in Portuguese and English art circles, but all over the world. In 1990, she was appointed the first Associated Artist of the National Gallery in London. She currently lives and works in London. In 2009 a magnificent Museum dedicated to the work of Paula Rego, opened in Cascais, Portugal. The building was designed by the architect Eduardo Souto Moura and it is called Casa das Histórias Paula Rego.
Paula Rego, Nanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman, 1982
The story referred to in the title was told to Rego by a friend and is based on a passage in Elias Canetti's autobiography. The author relates a scary childhood reminiscence in which his nanny's boyfriend threatens to cut out his tongue. Rego has painted the small bear tied to the nanny. She said "the one who is most wicked is not the bogeyman but the nanny who has strapped him up. She is so possessive and horribly evil that while I was painting the front bear another little bear appeared behind it."
Paula Rego, The Dance, 1988
The Dance can be read as a dance of life, representing the stages from a girl's childhood to old age. The painting has an eerie, dream-like quality typical of her work, which often refers to childhood fears and fantasy. It can be considered a memorial to Rego's husband, the artist Victor Willing, who died during its completion.
Paula Rego, Crivelli' Garden (panel 2), 1991
Paula Rego, Bride, 1994
Bride is one of a series of pastels which Rego made in 1994 and which were shown that year under the title 'Dog Woman'. The pastels depicted women in dog-like positions, scavenging for food, baying at the moon, sleeping and grooming. An early idea for Bride had the model sitting on all fours, but Rego turned the figure so that she is "belly-up in an attitude of surrender and ready to have her tummy tickled". Rego has also noted that "her hands and feet are uncovered, it was so vital that her extremities were exposed as they are in all animals".
Paula Rego, Dog Woman, 1994
"To be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden; that has very little to do with it. In these pictures every woman's a dog woman, not downtrodden, but powerful. To be bestial is good. It's physical. Eating, snarling, all activities to do with sensation are positive. To picture a woman as a dog is utterly believable." (Paula Rego)
Paula Rego, The Interrogator's Garden, 2000
A hatred of political persecution surfaces in Rego's work, as in her 2000 pastel series, The Interrogator's Garden (above), which came, she says, scowling with sudden fury, out of "contempt for bullies: when the secret police interrogate a victim on their own, they can do whatever they like". But she also reveals the bullying and power play within families, and women's collusion in them. As she said in a 1993 South Bank Show : "I was being repressed and restrained by my mother, not Salazar. Maybe the authoritarian thing comes right through to the kid, who takes it out on the dog or the doll." In The Policeman's Daughter, a girl polishes her absent father's jackboot:
Paula Rego, The Policeman's Daughter, 1987
Paula Rego, The Maids, 1987
The story at the heart of the painting came to Paula Rego ready-made in the form of Jean Genet’s play The Maids (1947), itself based on the real-life case of the Papin sisters, Christine and Lea, who worked as maids for a rich Parisian family. One day, frightened for no apparent reason other than that of a power cut which inconvenienced and possibly frightened the sisters, they brutally murdered the mother and daughter of the family while the man of the house was out at work.
Paula Rego, Nursery Rhymes, 1990s
Paula Rego, Untitled, 1990s
Paula Rego, Snow White Swallows The Poison Apple, 1995
Paula Rego, Snow White and her Step Mother, 1995
Paula Rego, War, 2003
War was inspired by a news photograph taken during the recent Iraq war. A close-up of a young girl’s face dominated almost half of the photograph, while a woman in the background held her child stoically. Rego transformed the original image, using a cast of rabbits and other hybrid creatures.
Paula Rego, Pillowman triptych, 2004