da The Indipendent del 25 gennaio 2013
Rego's private world
Now in her eighth decade, and with another new exhibition
opening, she's been called 'the best painter of women's experience
alive'. So why does she still feel frightened?
It is, says Paula Rego, as empty as you can
get. For a moment, I'm not sure if she's joking, but she
isn't. I've just asked her how long she's been working in this
studio, which used to be a picture-framing workshop, and which
you enter through a very scruffy, and almost secret, door. Once
you get in, it's hard not to gasp. There are prints and pictures
on the wall, as you might expect. There's a giant easel, and a
trolley full of pastels, as you might expect. But what you wouldn't
necessarily expect is the man on the sofa with the sheep, and
the dog, and the horse. What you wouldn't expect are the tiny
figures that could be children, or demons, and the old woman who's
naked, apart from a hat.
What you wouldn't expect, in fact, is a studio stuffed with props,
and clothes, and mannequins put together in groups that make you
think of Hieronymus Bosch.
You don't like an empty space? says Rego, when she
sees my surprise. It doesn't, I tell her, look all that empty
to me. You've got to have chairs, she explains, as
if she was talking to quite a small child, and you've got
to have easels, and Radio 4, and you've got to play records, and
then we've got the dollies we make, and the characters we make,
which are for the story.
We, it's clear, is Rego and her assistant, Lila Nunes,
who has been working with her since 1985. For more than 25 years,
she has sat for her, stood for her, crouched for her, hour after
hour and day after day. For more than 25 years, she has helped
to give life, in paint, and pastel, and charcoal, to the characters
in Paula Rego's head. If you think this sounds like an easy thing
to do, then you probably don't know Rego's work. It isn't just
the poses. It isn't just the fact that the figures in her paintings,
and her drawings, are often squatting, or bending, or lying, or
stretching, in ways that look as if they would definitely give
you cramp. It's what you can see in their faces. Paula Rego's
women and most of the figures in her work are women
are sad, and angry, and worried, and vengeful, and afraid.
In the picture that's in front of us, for example, which Rego
hasn't yet finished, there's an old woman who looks miserable,
and an old woman who looks angry, and an old woman who's got her
hands over a child's face. There's a tiny figure in a chair which
might be an old man, but which might also be a skeleton. And there's
a circle of children around them, in pretty dresses, with guns.
You could, I suppose, say all kinds of things about it, but one
thing you couldn't really say is that it was likely to cheer you
The picture's called Playground, and it's part of a series Rego
has done for her new exhibition, The Dame with the Goat's Foot
and Other Stories. Some of these pictures have already been shown,
with work by the artist Adriana Molder, at the Casa das Historias,
the gallery near Lisbon built to honour Rego's work. Many of them
were inspired by The Goat-Footed Lady, a story by the 19th-century
Portuguese writer Alexandre Herculano, based on an 11th-century
There was, says Rego, when I ask her about the story,
a hunter. This hunter was riding along the roads and hills,
and he heard wonderful singing. Before I can stop her, she's
off: to a land where a handsome hunter meets a marvellously
beautiful girl and discovers that one of her feet is a goat's.
Her eyes shine as she tells the story, and when she gets to the
moment when it all goes wrong, I actually hear myself gasp. The
story goes on, and on, and on, but suddenly she tails off. What
happens, Lila? she says. The son, says Lila,
who, it's clear, is as used to filling in stories as she is to
crouching, squatting, and booking cabs, sees flames coming
out of the river, and mutilated people. The lady, she adds,
stays in the mountain, singing.
It is, in other words, the kind of story you come across in Rego's
work all the time. There's passion. There's drama. There's disaster.
The lady disappears into the sky, but carries on singing. The
painter carries on painting. The dog dies. Portuguese stories,
it has become clear to me in my reading for the interview, are
even darker than most fairy tales.
Yes, says Rego when I say this, they're the
grimmest, the darkest, most ferocious stories there are.
But why? Because, she says, as if it's an obvious
point, it's like the Portuguese. But why is there
so much violence in Portuguese culture? Well, they gave
birth to Salazar and dictatorships. Yes, but this story
is nearly 1,000 years old! Same thing, she says. It's
coming back to it, it never leaves.
Well, she should know. She was born in Lisbon in 1935. Her father,
who worked as an engineer for Marconi, went to live in London
with her mother the following year, leaving Paula in the care
of her grandmother. It was from her grandmother, and her grandmother's
maids, and a depressive aunt, that she heard some of the folk
tales that became as real to her as the world around her. But
that world, it seems, was quite like the folk tales, too. I
was born during the dictatorship, she says, meaning the
dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which ran from 1934
to 1968, and it was horrendous. People were massacred. They
were put in jail. They had their nails pulled. And then there
was the revolution, and then that was supposed to have stopped.
But I don't see that it has stopped, really. And she laughs.
The laugh takes me by surprise, but then quite a lot about Paula
Rego takes me by surprise. She looks older than I expected. She
moves like someone who's in pain, which, she says, she is. She
has a sweet, sweet smile, but you don't expect to see it when
she's talking about massacres, and nails. And when she tells a
story, she makes you think both of a grandmother telling a child
a story and of a child repeating the story her grandmother has
I think Surrealism has always understood what I do,
she says, when I try to press her on the issue of the Portuguese
and violence, and I've always loved Max Ernst. She
tells me about an exhibition of work at the Whitechapel by the
French artist Pierre Klossowski. It must, from what she's saying,
have been in the Sixties, after she had studied art at the Slade,
married her tutor, Victor Willing (who left his wife to be with
her), lived in Portugal for a few years and then come back to
London. The drawings, she says, were just in pencil,
and they were a man and his wife fornicating and doing all
sorts of dirty things. But when she walked into the room,
she felt that she was surrounded by angels. She decided
to make mannequins to copy, as he did, and to do a show, all
of drawings of her own.
The resulting work wasn't just strange, and disturbing, and instantly
recognisable as hers. It was also, sometimes, beautiful. Her art,
she has said, deals with the beautiful grotesque.
The grotesque is there for all to see: in old women
breastfeeding children, in witches, and skeletons, and giant spiders,
and women cradling men who look as if they're dying. But you could
only miss the beauty if you don't think humanity has beauty. If
these women who cry, and rage, and fight, and struggle, are anything,
it's human. The art critic Robert Hughes said Paula Rego was the
best painter of women's experience alive. Germaine Greer,
who posed for a portrait Rego painted which is now in the National
Gallery, has said her paintings quiver with an anger and
compassion of which we have sore need.
So what, I ask, as I gaze at the strange tableaux around us,
and the faces she has drawn that seem so full of pain, does she
want people to feel when they see her work? Is it still, as she
said at one of her exhibitions in 1965, about giving fear
a face? Rego smiles, as if the idea was new. Yes!
This is what I discovered I'm doing to myself all the time.
She tries, she explains, to do pictures that don't always have
an element of fear or violence in them, but finds that it always
comes out anyway. I put something in there like
the shots, she says, referring to the plastic guns in Playground,
and then this looming fear comes out, which is what you
have all the time.
Is it? Some people, I tell her, don't. And fear, surely, is just
one emotion. Isn't art about the whole range of emotions? For
a moment, Rego looks stricken. It seems, she says,
as if someone has caught her making a terrible mistake, to
be the most powerful one, the one that pursues you all your life,
since you were a baby.
It certainly seems to have pursued her. She has been in Jungian
analysis for quite a lot of her adult life, but it doesn't seem
to have got rid of this fear. Why does she think it hasn't? Rego
looks stricken again. I think, she says, it
was crying and crying and nobody coming to my help. At the
military youth she was sent to for fascist indoctrination
she was, she says, told that you should never look in a fire or
you'd see the Devil's face. She didn't ever see the
Devil's face, but she did, she tells me, once climb into her parents'
bed after having a nightmare and see Death get into bed
So why did she carry on with the analysis if it didn't get rid
of her fear? Rego looks surprised. Oh, it was marvellous,
she says, the analyst was immensely kind, and I felt safe.
But didn't she feel safe anywhere else? I felt safe at home
with my grandmother. And with her husband? I felt
safe with my husband. Nowhere else? There isn't,
she says, anywhere else. But there is, I tell her,
the rest of the world! What about with other people? With
friends, I felt fine, yes. And on her own? I never
liked being on my own, ever, ever, ever, ever.
The poet and translator Anthony Rudolf features in quite a lot
of her work. Like Lila, he has knelt, and crouched, for hours,
and days, under Rego's steady gaze. He's usually referred to in
interviews and profiles as her partner. Does she live with him?
No. Are they still together? He's not my partner,
she says, as if I've suggested something quite strange, he's
my friend! It seems relevant, I tell her, to talk about
these things since sexuality is such a big part of her work. You
might well think of fear when you look at a Rego painting or drawing,
but you're also quite likely to think of sex. Does she think she's
a particularly sexual person? Yes, she says. With
Vic, I was, yes. I adored him. I don't know if he adored me, he
probably didn't, but he found me sexy. And has she, I say,
had other partners since? Rego looks sad, and I almost wish I
hadn't asked. Not partners in that sense, no.
When Victor died, of multiple sclerosis, in 1988, Rego went on
a trip to Southend and threw her cigarettes in the sea. It changed
her work. Needing something in the hand she used to use to smoke,
she started holding a palate. Both hands were occupied,
she says, pencil, charcoal, pastel, model, and I began to
draw from life. She started work on a series of drawings
and paintings called The Dance, which were shown at, and bought
by, the Tate. That, she says, occupied me completely.
She's unusual in doing as much drawing as painting, and in being
equally happy to do both. She gave up paint because she didn't
like the turpentine smell, but she thinks pastels suit her better.
It's much more severe than painting, she says, I'd
much rather handle something that's so direct to what I'm doing
than draw it with this sensitive and wriggly object, which is
called a brush. So does she want the violence of the paintings
to be reflected in the process? Yes! And is there
some kind of catharsis for her in producing a work? Rego looks
unsure. They're all different, you see. And I have to decide
by myself now, she says, sounding sad again, what
to do about it.
Most of her painter friends have, she says, disappeared or died.
But in Charles Saatchi, who has bought quite a bit of her work,
she has a patron who's also the patron of many of the YBAs. What
does she think of them?
To tell you the truth, says Rego, as if she's saying
something she shouldn't, my favourite is Sarah Lucas. She's
very, very good. I like her. I can't remember the names of the
others now. Tracey Emin, I suggest. Rego smiles. I
gave her a tutorial at the Royal College of Art, and she said,
'but you only talked about men'. Which, she adds with a
giggle, was probably true. But do you think she's
any good? I think she tries, she says, and she's
brave. And what about Damien Hirst? I like the dead
cow's head and the flies, but then it's all the same, the same,
the same. If Paula Rego is struggling a bit physically these
days, her critical faculties, it's clear, are just fine.
Her son-in-law, Ron Mueck, who's actually Australian, became
a YBA when Saatchi spotted his work in Rego's studio. He
has something which very few have, says Rego, the
gift of life. She has said in the past, I remind her, that
good drawing is about being alive. Does she still
think this? Rego shrugs. It's what I've always done, since
I was a child of four. I like it. It's secret. Also, you can punish
the people you don't like, or who've been naughty to you. You
can do anything you like in a drawing, anything.
It seems, I tell her, as if her dream world is lived out on the
paper or canvas. Is it? Yes. Do her dreams feel more
real to her than the outside world? My fears, she
says, are outside dreams, they're very much to do with being
outdoors. What, she's an artist who doesn't like being outside?
I like being in shops. She doesn't like nature? But
she lives on Hampstead Heath! Luckily, she says, our
flat faces the car park, so I don't have to look at all the trees.
She has said that she is of course a feminist because
all women are feminists. But, I tell her, they're
not. And some critics have said her work, which often shows women
in thrall to powerful and seductive men, doesn't seem feminist
at all. In the series of pictures she did about Jane Eyre in 2001
and 2002, Mr Rochester feels as powerful a presence as Jane. Why,
apart from the pictures she has done on abortion, and female genital
mutilation, (which are very, very powerful and shocking) would
she say that her work is feminist?
Well, she says, I've watched so much injustice
against women in Portugal. In her village, she says, she
would see women who were hungry, and who were beaten by their
husbands, and drowned babies (because their mothers couldn't feed
them, and couldn't have abortions) floating in the sea. You
paint pictures about it, she says, that's what I think.
And does it change anything? Well, she says, and then
she's quiet for a moment, I don't know. But at least the
artist thinks he can. Think of Goya. He thought he was going to
sell a lot of The Disasters of War, and he didn't. Maybe
Goya didn't, but on that front, at least, Paula Rego has done
pretty well. She has been a star in Portugal since the Sixties
(and was recently asked to paint the President, which, she says,
was a nightmare) and has been a star in this country
since an exhibition at the Serpentine in 1988. She was shortlisted
for the Turner Prize in 1989 and became the first artist in residence
at the National Gallery in 1990. She was made a Dame of the British
Empire in 2010. And her pictures, according to her biographer,
can sell for half a million each.
But one thing is clear. It's the art that matters. I want
to do better pictures, she says, and she looks, for a moment,
like a child who's worried that she won't be understood. I
want to do better and better and better until the thing is some
good. You have to go away and come back again, and then you say
'no', and you have to do it again.
The Dame with the Goat's Foot and Other Stories, Marlborough
Fine Art, London W1 to 1 March