Paula Rego, an appreciation: “She painted to know what she felt” | Paula Rego
I first met Paula Rego 20 years ago, interviewed her again when she was 80, and had one last conversation, via email, in 2021, just before the magnificent retrospective of his work by the Tate; it was most likely the last interview she gave. Our first meeting – she would have been in her 60s – was at her studio in Kentish Town. She came across as a successful Londoner and, at the same time, as a staunch Portuguese.
His studio was filled with outlandish creatures – a life-size horse, a stuffed pelican, a battered toy monkey. And there were clothes on racks: a Victorian frock coat, a tomato-colored waistcoat, a taffeta dress. It was like being behind the scenes – she was part director, part designer, part costumer. I was thrilled by her imagination and everything she had to say. She was about to exhibit her formidable paintings inspired by Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre. I remember telling her how amazed I was at how she freed Jane from the straitjacket of an English governess and transformed her into a Mediterranean figure in whom lust is eerily undisguised. His Jane, I thought aloud, was no mouse. At this, Rego, who had hitherto spoken in a generous, modest, cooperative manner, exploded: “I don’t believe in the existence of little mice! All mice have guts and teeth and they are terrifying, these little mice. Jane Eyre is actually a bit of a rat, although noble and very proud.
Throughout her career, Rego’s advocacy of women has been stalwart, fierce and complicated: She was no polemicist, but her work – in particular, the 1998 sequence of 10 paintings on abortion – has done more than any verbal demonstration to help change Portuguese anti-abortion. right. The defense was complicated because it did not make heroines of its women, but explored their pain, their grief, their ardor – and their flaws. She also continued to express her own feelings about being a woman: many of her best paintings were born out of her marriage to artist Victor Willing, who died tragically young of MS.
Rego was certainly not a mouse herself, although one could say – it wouldn’t have bothered him – that there was a mischievous ape in her (delinquent monkeys feature in wonderful paintings from the 80s ). I can still see the mischievousness in her smile, the quarreling teeth, the lightning in her eyes—the sense of the unquenchable child in the older woman. At 80, she told me: “I’m not brave in real life but I’m not afraid to do anything in my job.”
I love his work because it does what the best paintings do: it raises questions that are impossible to definitively answer. Scrolling through the catalog of last year’s Tate retrospective, I’m again struck by how few of its subjects look at you. There is a feeling of intrusion when you intrude on their reverie. This is part of what makes his work powerfully enigmatic and subversive. What is The policeman’s daughter (1987) Thinking While Shining His Father’s Boot? What is the woman who dances without a partner in the moonlight in her masterpiece, Dance (1988), feeling in his unsuitable walking shoes? And what, in Family (1988), are we to make the woman dressing a helpless man – the most brutal of nurses – her arm over her mouth as if to choke him, her own mouth frozen in an expression of unreliable amiability? The horizon it fixes, we do not see. Rego’s model and friend, Lila Nunes, once the family’s au pair, appears repeatedly in these paintings – always and never the same.
One remarkable thing that emerges from the 2021 interview is that even in the advanced frailty of old age, Rego continued to commute to his Kentish Town studio for work every day. I am tempted to write: she was an inspiration. Yet I know she would have dismissed that, said work was necessary to survive, and painting was what it was. She told me, during our last conversation, that she painted to find out how she felt: there were no known quantities or advances. The sadness of learning of her death will be felt by all who met her, however briefly, and by countless admirers around the world, but her incomparable paintings will continue to keep us guessing: they will never be resolved. , never in the past.