Paula Rego (born 1953 in Lisbon, Portugal) is widely considered one of the most distinctive and acclaimed artists of our time. She has worked across seven decades and her latest exhibition at Tate Britain was the most comprehensive display of her work ever staged in Britain. In case you didn’t catch it, we thought we’d relay some of our favourite parts.
Throughout her life, Rego has pursued new and different ways of telling stories through pictures. Though her works are rooted in personal experience, they are also connected with world events and sometimes address unsettling emotional experiences – the types we don’t always notice in others.
She’s not shy in making people confront cruelty, both within people and circumstances, though she tempers this with a kind of wild humour and some fantasy too.
Rego’s early paintings are inspired by her experiences around the abuse of power, particularly directed at women. They often focus on visceral and abstracted bodily forms, and parody the grotesque nature of the Portuguese dictatorship in which she spent her first 16 years (with fiercely anti-fascist parents). There is plenty of surrealist influence in her work too, especially in her collage pieces from the 1960s and 1970s in which she combines disparate fragments and fine art of popular culture.
Rego is open about the influence that Jungian therapy had on her life and work, and how her own analysis awoke a desire to investigate archetypal characters that mirror and influence human behaviour. In the 1980s, she abandoned collage to make bold, richly coloured paintings with stark outlines, such as animals that take on human characteristics. From 1984, the protagonists of her works were fiercely rebellious and independent female figures who inhabit female desire and nod toward the artist’s inner world and her feelings towards patriarchy. Soon after this she began to paint explicitly about her relationship with her husband Victor Willing, who died of multiple sclerosis in 1988. Stories of coercion and defiance, possession and even the absurdity of life, dominate Rego’s work in an extraordinary melding of the personal and the polemic. A truly brilliant exhibition from a truly important and impactful artist.