The Portuguese artist, Paula Rego, has always used her artistic and creative traits to showcase political and social concerns – in particular those involving women.
Tate Britain is currently holding the artist’s largest retrospective to date in the UK, and we can’t recommend for you to go and see it for yourself enough. The exhibition starts with her 1950’s works, taking us through a journey of 60 years of paintings, drawings, and collages.
Rego was born in Lisbon during the dictatorship of Prime Minister, António de Oliveira Salazar, which lasted until 1974. Under the regime, political freedom was no longer possible, women saw their rights limited and Portugal’s colonies were brutally maintained. Her family was anti-fascist so she was confronted with political issues since birth and these have deeply inspired her works. After attending an English school in Portugal, she went to a finishing school in Kent and later on enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she met her soon-to-be husband Victor Willing in 1959. Rego and her family lived between Portugal and the UK before settling in London in 1972, where she still lives.
“I make work because it is all I can do. I find out what it’s about by doing it. Unexpected things come up. The trick is not to censor them”, she said in an interview for Tate Etc. magazine.
During her time in Portugal, Rego was never afraid of expressing her political opinions on her paintings. Salazar Vomiting the Homeland, 1960, is just one example. It was shown in Lisbon in 1972, still under Salazar’s regime, but had its title censored for fear of repression. Her paintings from this period usually bring a hidden message behind – be it a criticism of women’s role in society, men’s authority, or cruel colonialist and racist practices.
When We Had a House in the Country We’d Throw Marvellous Parties and The We’d Go Out and Shoot Black People, from 1961, was inspired by a real conversation overheard by her husband Victor in a club in Portugal – the man was talking about his time in the Angola war. The full title wasn’t disclosed at first – being changed to When We Had a House in the Country […] – as everything had to be checked by the censor.
In her career trajectory, Rego had different interests and preferred mediums throughout the years. After the fall of the Portuguese authoritarian regime in 1974, she diversified into collages, gouache and acrylic paintings, inspired by fairytales and folklore – even Disney characters were present in some of her paintings. Her works between the 1980s and 1990s are considered some of her best ones – many of them telling stories about women from a different perspective, exploring her feelings, needs and emotions.
The Dog Woman series, 1994, is one of her most acclaimed works – she depicts women posturing and behaving like dogs and it is all about her relationship with her husband Victor, who had passed away a few years before. Abortion (1998) is another famous series of powerful pastels by Rego. These were created in response to the failed referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal in 1998 and show brutal images of women suffering during or after undergoing an illegal abortion. However, they’re not portrayed as victims but as strong characters. These were so compelling that have been credited with influencing the public to campaign for another referendum almost a decade later, in 2007, when abortion was finally legalised in Portugal.
She continued highlighting women’s issues throughout her latest work, exploring human trafficking and female genital mutilation. These were a response to the numerous and horrific stories that make the news every other day. By touching on difficult yet important matters that concern the whole society, she aims to bring visibility to the pain of people who experience this abuse and to fight injustice.
Paula Rego has been ahead of her time since the beginning of her career, making political and social statements when people weren’t allowed to have a voice. In times when we’re allowed to speak up but not everyone chooses to do so, she continues voicing her opinions. Rego is a brilliant artist that has an extraordinary path and led significant changes in the art world. If there’s one exhibition you should visit this summer, is this one.
Paula Rego’s retrospective is at Tate Britain until 24th October 2021.
By Manuela Rio Tinto