Paula Rego was one of the great figurative painters of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Born in Portugal, Rego lived and worked most of her life in England. She first began exhibiting her work in the early 1960s with The London Group, and over the decades, her paintings were recognized for their haunting power in a series of career retrospectives at major museums, including the Tate Britain. She was also the first Associate Artist of the National Gallery in London.
Rego’s paintings are strange and disturbing, evoking the psychosexual tumult that underwrites Western myths and fairy tales. Obliquely feminist, Rego’s images conjure a counternarrative to patriarchal domination. As Whitney Chadwick put it in her book Women, Art, and Society, Rego’s paintings were part of “the figurative tradition of history painting but used heroic scale, harsh lighting, and theatrical compositions to present a pantheon of female figures traditionally suppressed in accounts of male exploits . . .[her] works propose a new iconography for the female heroine.”
I’m pretty sure it was in Chadwick’s Women, Art, And Society that I first saw a reproduction of The Family, a painting that shocked me, and reminded me of the work of one of my favorite painters at the time, Balthus, as well as the films of David Lynch.
There’s an uncanny mix of humor and paranoid terror in much of Rego’s work, and her feminist reimagining of folk tales and myths has much in common with the work of writers like Angela Carter and Anne Sexton.
A strong advocate of women’s rights, in 2019 Rego called out the increasingly-draconian anti-choice laws being acted in America, telling The Guardian, “It seems unbelievable that these battles have to be fought all over again. It’s grotesque.”
In 1998, Rego, who spoke publicly about her own abortions, created a series called The Abortion Pastels. The series depicted the reality of unsafe illegal abortions, and was a response to a failed referendum to legalize abortion in her native Portugal.
Rego’s work also addressed human trafficking, so-called “honor killings,” and war in an oblique, surreal-tinged style that transcends the limits of social realist figurative art.
And while Rego’s art addressed sociocultural ills, and in doing so was often shocking and disturbing, it is nevertheless beautiful—she was a fantastic painter and left a strong, large body of work that will, I suspect, feel even more relevant as the twenty-first century careens into fascism and fear.
The title of one of Max Ernst’s most mysterious paintings. An unseen woman is being prepared by two attendants for her marriage, and is dressed in an immense gown of red plumage that transforms her into a beautiful and threatening bird. Behind her, as if in a mirror, is a fossilized version of herself, fashioned from archaic red coral. All my respect and admiration of women is prompted by this painting, which I last saw at Peggy Guggenheim’s museum in Venice, stared at by bored students. Leaving them. I strayed into a private corridor of the palazzo, and a maid emerging through a door with a vacuum cleaner gave me a glimpse into a bedroom overlooking the Grand Canal. Sitting rather sadly on the bed was Miss Guggenheim herself, sometime Alice at the surrealist tea-party, a former wife of Max Ernst and by then an old woman. As she stared at the window I half-expected to see the bird costume on the floor beside her. She was certainly entitled to wear it.