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Before Paula Rego died, she had already changed the aesthetics of contemporary art in Britain and further afield; her death leaves the horizons she opened clear and free for others to explore. A storyteller in pictures, she defied the condescension in which illustrative work and literary reference were held; as an artist who was female she did not equivocate about the intimacies of women’s lives, for good and ill, and alongside another fearless psychological explorer, Louise Bourgeois, she helped to revolutionise attitudes to women artists and the representation of women’s concerns, fantasies, drives and lives, both as subjects and as makers. Similarly, she valued the consciousness of children and saw making art as a form of play, essential to survival. Supremely skilled at drawing on paper and plate, she turned the traditional discipline of working from the live model into an inward journey.

The vigour of her hand and brilliance of her technique meant she could realise singular, wondrous and disturbing scenes rising in her mind’s eye with unflinching honesty; these images are ambivalent, often perverse, mischievous, with undercurrents of danger. She generated hundreds of entirely original scenarios that are often baffling yet go straight through to the nervous system of the viewer, as Francis Bacon (whom she admired), wished to do. She called her style “beautiful grotesque”, a phrase that catches the contradictions in her images, but does not convey the strength and strangeness of the bodies she painted, the turbulent force of her compositions and the sympathy she shows in her depiction of emotions and ordeals. She was close both to Surrealism and to Art Brut in spirit, often gleeful at delinquency and yet sensitive to the presence of the sacred, but her methods differ, for her array of traditional skills served remarkable powers of visualisation. If Paula liked a story—from an old tale, a poem or a novel—its elements crystallised in a flash into images: this happened, for instance, when she listened to a recording of Jane Eyre (she enjoyed being read poetry and fiction) and produced her fierce sequence of prints in 2003, or when, earlier, she painted large scenes taken from The Crime of Father Amaro, a ferocious anti-clerical novel by Eça de Queirós. These scenes are hardly illustrations of the novel, but rather variations ranging into fantasy far beyond the verbal account.

Her faculties were dry touchpaper and caught fire with a promptness and dynamism that could not be believed; that energy of eye and mind radiated from her person, too. She wore richly coloured, flamboyant clothes and had a huge smile, wicked and conspiratorial, a grin that was enhanced by expressive crooked teeth (her childhood predated the era of braces). What is still surprising is that this most original and peculiar creative spirit inspired recognition in so many viewers of her vision, that the experiences she depicted, once made visible by her, struck home for so many, and led to profound fellow feeling and admiration, bordering on adulation. The outpouring of tributes and affection has been tumultuous. In Portugal, where she was born in 1935, a national day of mourning was declared.

Her faculties were dry touchpaper and caught fire with a promptness and dynamism that could not be believed; that energy of eye and mind radiated from her person, too

She was acclaimed in her native Iberia, with a retrospective in 2004 at the Museu Serralves in Porto, and another, in 2007, at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. In the UK she was given a small-scale exhibition at Tate Britain in 2004 but had to wait until 2021, when she was 86, for a full retrospective at the same museum. There had been other major shows: at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1998, and in 2019, not long before the pandemic, Catherine Lampert curated a fine exhibition in Milton Keynes and then at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, and in Dublin. In Portugal she was uniquely honoured in Casa das Histórias (House of Stories), in Cascais, near Lisbon, an imaginative architectural building dedicated to her work that opened in 2009. She chose the name herself and donated to the museum a full range of her graphic art. In the UK, the first revelatory display of her work took place at the Serpentine Gallery in 1988, when the late Alister Warman was director and championed Rego (and other women artists). Rego was in her 50s.

Like many others, I first saw Paula’s work there. The show included large canvases inspired by the Vivian Girls, the courageous heroines of the outsider Henry Darger’s epic: skirmishing small figures, girls and animals, rhythmically wreathed together in rapid cursive paint marks. Smaller paintings of the Red Monkey series unfolded fierce scenes with children and animals. “It was as if a dog were to tell its own story,” Rego commented. That savage persona, “Dog woman”, was to resurface, more powerfully raging than ever, in the great sequence of depression pictures she made in the 1990s. The Serpentine show also included The Dance (1988), now in the Tate, and other film-noirish scenes of sexual tension, male authority, female power and powerlessness, as remembered from her childhood in Portugal and her own life in London. She said of herself “I paint to give fear a face”.

Paula Rego was born in Lisbon, during the dictatorship of Salazar, and brought up in Ericeira on the Portuguese riviera; she was an only child. Her father was an electronics engineer, anti-clerical and dissident, and did not want his daughter to be taught by church or state in Portugal, so sent her to English schools, first in Portugal and later in Kent. But the Salazar regime still haunts her early work: Interrogation (1950), Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960) and the frieze-like painting When we had a house in the country, we’d throw marvellous parties and we’d go out and shoot black people (1961), unfold the nightmare of state violence. At home, her grandmother, aunt and other members of the household formed Paula’s imagination as they passed on gossip and stories, weird Portuguese and other fairy-tales and gory accounts of saints’ torments. This material directly enters her work (the series The Dame with the Goat’s Foot and The Pig Prince, for example) but folkloric motifs and structures recur over the many decades of her picture-making.

Paula Rego in front of Dogs of Barcelona, 1965

In 1952 she went to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she met Vic Willing, a powerful, charismatic figure who, in 1959, became her husband; they had three children. The couple went to live in Portugal for an early part of their marriage till 1963; the plan was that Willing would paint and also help with the family business there, but it did not prosper; Vic had also contracted multiple sclerosis. They returned to London; life was not easy, to say the least, and the toll of his illness sounds through Rego’s magnificent, troubled work of this period (The Family). He died aged 60 in 1988. It is not often noted that Rego’s career, like Louise Bourgeois’s, overturns the received idea that artistic genius and motherhood—and hardship—are incompatible.

Their youngest child, the film-maker Nick Willing, filmed interviews with his mother for the startling documentary he made in 2017. He called it Secrets and Stories, after one of Rego’s chiaroscuro prints, a scene of women and children (and fairy-tale creatures) whispering and gossiping together. The power of women’s networks, operating beneath the machismo of patriarchs, appears with the force of lived experience in numerous works: the 1987 tableaux inspired by Jean Genet’s play The Maids also brood on the conspiracies between women. Rego was beloved by feminists, and she never drew back from seeing how women’s weak status leads them to work against their own interests. Her unsparing series of backstreet abortion paintings helped decide the second Portuguese referendum to grant women the right to choose. In more recent years, she made devastating images of female circumcision, showing ghoulish older women operating on girl children; and in Human Cargo (2007-08) and Little Brides with their Mother (2009-10), she drew and painted women being trafficked, older women collaborating in the trade. These series again nod to Goya, especially his engraving of a young woman being pandered by May God forgive her! Her own mother! (1799). Paula was alive to the distortions produced by servitude and abjection, and exceptionally frank in seeing how women connived with one another to continue those states. She did not shut her eyes to cruelty, and she confronted the most difficult areas of experience, actual and internal: “Shame is something that interests me profoundly,” she said. “It is exactly those areas of shame that I like to touch on. It makes you sometimes squirm, but why, what is shame? I think shame is one of the most interesting things we have.”

Goya remained her most evident precursor; her dream realism, depicting the phantoms of her unconscious with a powerful figurative technique, echoes his Caprichos and Disparates; her painting War (2003), also bought by the Tate, was prompted by a newspaper photograph from the Iraq conflict; Rego substituted flayed rabbits and destroyed soft toys to horrifying effect that again echoes Goya’s Disasters of War series. She liked to learn from others: her residency at the National Gallery in London in 1990 gave her access to long, close looking at the Italian Old Masters; this intimacy profoundly influenced her sense of drama, scale and teeming narrative composition. She always acknowledged forerunners with pleasure, conveying special appreciation for graphic artists: William Hogarth and his “modern moral subjects” shapes many works, not only the triptych The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck, after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth of 1999. She kept heaps of books around her in the studio for reference and admired the brilliance of cartoonists such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and Ronald Searle, and invoked illustrators from overseas—Gustave Doré, Max Klinger, Steinlen.

Goya remained her most evident precursor; her dream realism, depicting the phantoms of her unconscious with a powerful figurative technique, echoes his Caprichos and Disparates

Her studio, in Kentish Town, north London, was a prop room, a wardrobe, a rehearsal stage, a theatre—her playroom. When she was younger, she had worked on the floor; her commitment to art as a form of play was grounded in DW Winnicott’s principle that “playing is reality”. In 1988, when Lila Nunes came to help with her husband Vic Willing during his last illness, Rego found an alter ego: Nunes is Portuguese, and resembles Paula in build and colouring and was able to tune in, almost uncannily, to the artist’s needs; the partnership was exceptionally productive, ranging from complex compositions in which Nunes takes different roles, to the great solo studies of the Possession series (2004). Rego also drew on family and friends to enact her scenarios: her daughters, her grand-daughters, and her partner, the writer and publisher Anthony Rudolf. Rudolf has said that he realised early on that if he wanted to have time with Paula, the only way was to sit for her. He appears in many roles, sometimes cross-dressed, at other times naked as Gregor Samsa in the painting Metamorphosis, or the dead Christ in the mysteries of the life of the Virgin, which Rego painted for the president of Portugal in 2002. When no model fitted her vision, she made “dollies”, stuffed, bulbous puppets that she did not disguise, and who like the sinister Pillowman, haunt her most troubling scenes.

Paula Rego worked all the time; her health and her life depended on it, and when inspiration dried up, she was plunged into gloom. Some of her most sensitive and poignant drawings, a suite called Misericordia, were made in 2001; they show fragile, elderly patients being cared for, tenderly; the sick are small, like children again, while the carers loom, giants.

To meet, Paula Rego wasn’t herself altogether like her paintings, at least not to a friend, which I feel so fortunate to have been. She was enigmatic, yes, but the darkness in the work didn’t shadow her in person. She was warm and full of laughter, curiosity, and generosity. A rare sensibility, a most potent imagination, a beguiling and beloved woman, and a unique and magnificent artist: like so many others, I feel very diminished by her loss.

• Maria Paula Figueiroa Rego, born Lisbon 26 January 1935; married 1959 Vic Willing (died 1988; one son, two daughters); DBE 2010; died London 8 June 2022.

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