Why artist Paula Rego remains a master storyteller

She’s lived mainly in London since leaving her native Lisbon as a young woman to escape the conservatism of 1950s Portugal. But her son says she’s truly happy only in her studio making art.

At the age of 86 and – as her son Nick Willing explains – now growing a little frail, Rego did not attend the press view for her scintillating new show at Tate Britain. But her intensity and bold imagination leap from the 100 or so images on display.

The retrospective asserts her right to be judged Britain’s leading figurative painter, interested above all in the human form (though fascinated by animals too). That judgement on her work is still contested may largely be down to two factors – being Portuguese and being a woman.

Willing stood in at the Tate event to talk candidly in both Portuguese and English about his mother’s work. His 2017 documentary Paula Rego – Secrets and Stories is one of the most insightful films about a living artist.

“For the better part of my mother’s life she was struggling to gain any kind of recognition in Britain. She was already in her early 50s when that began to change. For so long it had been much more difficult to be recognised in the art world as a woman. In the 1960s she was probably better known in Portugal.”

Rego came to London at 17 to study painting, though for years her life remained split between Britain and Portugal.

Her son is pleased that a 60s piece such as Self-Portrait in Red (1966) is included in the Tate show. Interrogation (1950) shows the talent she had even in her teens: it suggests the state-sanctioned violence which pervaded Portugal’s repressive Estado Novo (New State) from the late 1920s.

Rego’s awareness of the mechanics of political violence and of military repression developed early. Yet it is hard to say what underlies a picture such as the much later The Cadet And His Sister (1988). As in many Rego pictures, an animal appears. Often it’s a dog but here it’s a cockerel.

Willing thinks most people now barely could imagine how it was to grow up in the Portugal his mother knew when young.

“In the Portugal of the Fascist era the thought police were everywhere – even amongst your friends. You weren’t allowed to think certain things let alone speak them. People were often shopped to the PIDE (state security police) for saying the wrong thing and just disappeared.

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