Untitled No. 5 (from the Abortion Pastels), 1998 by Paula Rego (1935-2022)
RIP Paula Rego, 1935-2022
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.
Geppetto Washing Pinocchio, 1996 by Paul Rego (b. 1935)
Nanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman, 1982 by Paula Rego (b. 1935)
Mist II, 1996 by Paula Rego (b. 1935)
The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987 by Paula Rego (b. 1935)
Snare, 1987 by Paula Rego (1935)
(More at Apollo; thanks to Ellen for sending me the link).
The Little Murderess, 1987 by Paula Rego (b. 1935)
Celestina’s House, 2001 by Paula Rego (b. 1935)
Few virgins (I thank God for it) have you seen in this city that I have not helped sell their wares. As soon as the girl is born, I write her down in my register and keep a catalogue of all their names to the intent that I might know how many escaped my net. Why, what did you think of me, Sempronio? Can I live by the air? Can I feed myself with wind? Do I inherit any other land? Have I any other house or vineyard? Know you of any other substance of mine besides this office? By what do I eat and drink? By what do I put clothes on my back and shoes on my feet? In this city was I born; in it was I bred; and in it I live (though I say it) in good credit and estimation, as all the world knows. You may rest assured that he who knows not both my name and my house is a stranger in this town.
Bride, 1994 by Paul Rego (b. 1935)
Him, 1996 by Paul Rego (b. 1935)