Paula Rego: painting her life

For Paula Rego, one of the world’s leading living painters, every painting must be a story—and usually she is in that story. The documentary made about her by her son intercut interviews with her at different ages, paintings and drawings from throughout her 80 years of life, and home videos and photographs to show how her life and her work are entangled. She was also explicit with her son that work was the most important thing in her life, more important than him and his sisters, her husband, and her lovers. (The same goes for Picasso and perhaps all great artists.)

She was born in Portugal into a wealthy family. The society was Catholic and conservative, and from the beginning she kicked against it. Fairy stories were important to her, and they have featured in her paintings throughout her career.


At 18 she left Portugal to go the Slade School of Art in London. All the women there, she said, had abortions, and later in her life she produced a series of paintings, drawings, and etchings of women undergoing abortions. She felt passionately that women should be able to have abortion on demand, and the pictures had an explicit political purpose: in 2007 Portugal finally voted to allow abortion.

All her life she has suffered from depression, and she found that work was more helpful than anything else in beating off depression. She produced a series of pictures of depressed women, but for many years she was too ashamed to show these. In the documentary she show showed them to her son for the first time, and just this year they have been exhibited. I was interested that she felt more comfortable with pictures of abortion than of depression.

Depression 1

At the Slade she took up with Victor Willing, the star of the class. Although he was already married, she became pregnant by him more than once. Initially she had an abortion (or abortions) unable to face the wrath of her mother. Eventually, however, she decided to keep the baby despite Willing saying that he would stay with his wife. She moved back to Portugal and eventually Willing joined and married her.

They painted together in a building in the garden of their house, but he couldn’t paint while she was enormously productive—and always has been. She was always, however, completely subservient to him, doing whatever he wanted her to do. This seemed to be the result of her strict upbringing where her mother and grandmother told her that women must always give way to their husbands. Her paintings are filled with subservient women.

Their marriage was stormy, with both of them being unfaithful. When her father died Willing took over his business and soon bankrupted it. The family moved back to London and lived in poverty. Willing then contracted multiple sclerosis Perhaps because of their poverty, his unfaithfulness and illness, her inclination, or some combination of these she became the mistress of a picture dealer. She produced a series of pictures where she is the monkey, Willing the dog, and her lover the bear (or do they switch around?). She didn’t confess this at the time but does now. At least one of the paintings seems be a picture of castration, although perhaps of the tongue rather than the genitals.

dog monkey bear2


The dance

When Willing died she painted a picture The Dance that shows couples dancing, as we saw them dancing on the terrace in Portugal in a home movie. Willing dances with another woman (in yellow), and Rego (dressed perhaps in a confirmation dress but with a brown apron) is larger than all the others, ready to face whatever the future will bring. She also painted Dog Woman, one of her best known pictures which shows a contorted woman howling with grief.

Dog woman

Willing died in 1988, and since then she has become steadily more successful. We saw an auction where one of her paintings sold for £800 000. A painting that particularly struck me and is important to her is her Guardian Angel, a woman that looks like her holding a sword. The picture could almost be by Velasquez, Goya, Titian, or any of the Old Masters and be of St George or the Archangel Michael. It is both her angel and her fairy godmother.








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