Apparently, Paula Rego, now 86, still goes to work in her studio in Camden every day. Rego's work isn't comfortable viewing; I have never found it easy – it's not meant to be. That is what makes it fascinating. That she is one of the one most important figurative artists of her generation is hard to challenge. The retrospective at Tate Britain is an extensive survey of Rego's extraordinary career spanning 70 years: collage, large-scale pastels, ink and pencil drawings, etchings and textile sculptures ('dollies'). Her work is fired by personal experience and stories – real stories, fantastical stories and folk tales – but stories that all place women (and the unsanitised real version of womanhood) at their centre and tell a truth.
The first painting in the exhibition is called 'Interrogation' [above] and was painted in 1950 when Rego was just 15 years old and living (in an anti-fascist family) in Portugal under the brutal dictatorial regime of the Estado Novo (New State). It is a sinister, disturbing scene and sets an appropriate tone to an exhibition that then progresses chronologically through her changing styles but never wavering from her passionate vision imbued with her dramatic storytelling.
The first gallery shows her relatively abstract collage-based works of the 1960s and 70s which – if you only glance – could appear as bright – even uplifting – montages, but on closer inspection are packed with images and symbols that express Rego's anguish and rage connected with social and political oppression.
In the 1980s Rego abandons collage and begins to work on large, bold, brightly-coloured paintings with stark outlines filled with animals which take on human characteristics. Behind the bright facade she explores the darker aspect of human relationships – it is poignant that the characters within these paintings have a strong connection with the artist's childhood memories.
Firercely indpendent and rebellious girls become the main subjects of Rego's works in the mid-80s. Rego's women revolt against social norms and openly show sexual drive and frustrated desire. The famous 'girl and dog' series [one of the two in the series below] are a metaphor for the demanding but also tender relationship between Rego and her increasingly ill and dependent husband.
Rego revolutionised the way in which women were represented. She illustrates how women's' identities are shaped while growing up in patriarchal societies. Her women are empowered – powerful and strong. And womanhood is laid bare with all its messiness – visceral and real. Much later in the final section, there are some truly shocking works denouncing forms of abuse – the trafficking of women and female mutilation. You can feel her outrage as she makes visible the unnecessary suffering caused by abortions that women were forced to undergo illegally (a referendum in 1998 in Portugal to decriminalise abortion failed). How many other artists have visualised depression and railed against women's assumed frail mental constitution? The seven pictures of Lila Nunes on the couch in the series 'Possession' will stop you in your tracks. All these pictures will stay with me for a long time. Brilliant.
Throughout her career, Rego was fascinated by stories and storytelling and this pervades much of her work. Often an interesting play between fantasy and reality. In the Nursery Rhyme series (black and white etchings) Rego explores the sinister, cruelty of many traditional British children's songs. There is a massive oil tryptich (over 3-metres long) which is inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, her own childhood favourite. This is not the jolly childhood version.
The breadth of Rego's work is as breathtaking as it is important. This mind-blowing retrospecitve is major and not to be missed. Granted, it isn't obviously a show for young children so we would encourage them (any one not familiar) to explore a bit of background before going – there is a good intro to Rego on the Tate's Kid's wesbsite, for instance, here.
Go! Soak up her passionate vision and unriddle her stories – everyone will be the richer for it.
7th July to 24th October 2021
Anya Waddington 7 July 2021