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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Taboo Artist Paula Rego’s Show at Tate Sold-Out

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

In Time – Past and Present, she takes classical painting and structure and symbols, and she subverts them to reflect the female experience.


“Unique” and “inimitable”: Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa described the retrospective of the country’s native daughter, Paula Rego, at the Tate Britain in London on October 22, reported the Observador (October 22).

“An uncompromising artist of extraordinary imaginative power, she has revolutionized the way in which women are represented,” the museum wrote about Rego.

“She has fiercely taken on fascism,” which she grew up in, commentator Christiane Amanpour said about her.

Amanpour interviewed Nick Willing, Rego’s son, on her eponymous show on CNN on October 22. How did his mother feel about the Tate retrospective?

“It’s a huge honor. It’s a dream come true because she’s been knocking on the door of the Tate for almost all her adult life,” Willing said about his 86-year-old mother. “But, unfortunately, the art world is a world with paintings by men for men until very recently and, so, the fact that they opened the door to her is a dream come true.”

The exhibition features more than 100 works, including collages, paintings, large-scale pastels, ink and pencil drawings and etchings. There are works from the 1950s in which Rego first explored personal as well as social struggle, her large pastels of single figures from the acclaimed Dog Women and Untitled (Abortion) series, and richly staged scenes from 2000-2010s, according to the museum’s brochure.

The exhibition has received “rave reviews”, said Amanpour, who read from the Financial Times:

“This retrospective proves that no artist has more powerfully subverted male painterly tradition to express the modern female experience.”

According to John McEwen's Paula Rego (1992), feminist writer, Germaine Greer, has written of the artist: “It is not often given to women to recognize themselves in painting, still less to see their private world, their dreams, the inside of their heads, projected on such a scale and so immodestly, with such depth and color”.

Nick Willing, a filmmaker who directed Paula Rego, Secrets and Stories (2017), said that the National Gallery invited Rego in the 1980s to be its first artist-in-residence, which she rejected immediately because it was full of work by men for men. An artist-in-residence is supposed to draw inspiration from the work there, and she felt that there was nothing there for her. However, a week later, she changed her mind.

“Some of that work is shown in this exhibit. In Time – Past and Present, for example, she takes the classical, even Renaissance and Baroque, painting and structure and symbols, and she subverts them to reflect the female experience. For centuries, for millennia, the art world has been seen through the looking glass of 50 percent of the population. Women were almost never reflected or shown.”

Willing sat in his mother’s studio in London, which she now calls home. However, Maria Paula Figueiroa Rego was born in 1935 in Lisbon, the only child of her parents. In 1938, due to a diagnosis of incipient tuberculosis, the family moved up the coast to the healthier seaside resort of Estoril. The three of them moved into a villa built for them. Rego attended Saint Julian's School in Carcavelos. At age 16, she left for the United Kingdom, where she studied at a finishing school, The Grove School, in Sevenoaks, Kent, followed by the Slade School for Fine Arts in London. She spent time in both countries. In 1974, she and her husband and their three children moved back to London.


Untitled (Abortion)


Willing recalled 10 pastels that she made, explicitly, for Portugal.

“The abortion pictures, which she called Untitled, she regards as the most important she’s ever done because she felt so passionate when that first referendum failed (in Portugal in 1998) because not enough women went out to vote. They were too embarrassed. They stayed home. And so, she was incensed.”

Rego had been candid about having many abortions before having her three children.

“I went round for Sunday lunch, and I remember her saying, ‘My God! Why don’t people realize this is a public health issue. It has nothing to do with left or right. It has to do with keeping our daughters and our wives and our mothers safe because backstreet abortions will happen . . .

“She did what she knew how to do. She set out making a series of pictures in which she cast, sometimes schoolgirls as having just had abortions. Their pictures describe the emotional turmoil and pain and the anguish. They’re not bloody or horrific pictures. They’re emotional pictures.”

In Untitled (Abortion), Rego used two tropes of Western art history: the gaze and the reclining nude, according to Riot Material (May 29, 2019).

With the gaze, viewers are not invited to explore the women’s bodies as pleasure domains. Whether the subject is looking directly at the viewer, looking away in agony, or closing her eyes in pain, Rego controls the women’s gaze in conscious ways and, in turn, the viewer.

The reclining nude brings up that push and push between sexual attraction, the act of sex and the physical outcomes like pregnancy and miscarriage that may occur as a result of sex.

“It’s true that when they were shown in Portugal, particularly, at the Gulbenkian Foundation, they did change a lot of minds. And this is something that Paula has done for her country of birth: She’s allowed people to talk about taboo subjects that they would find, otherwise, difficult to discuss.

“By bringing it out in the open, then what happened was chat shows started talking about it, radio shows started talking about it and, suddenly, women were encouraged to go out and vote. The second time they held the vote, in 2007, it did pass.

“In fact, the president at the time, Jorge Sampaio, told me that that was, largely, because of her pictures.”

Amanpour asked about his mother.

“She is unwell, which is why I’m speaking to you. Otherwise, she would be here (in her studio) 24/7. This is where she lived out her life, her playground.

“She’s just recovered from COVID. She suffered quite a lot: 10 days in bed with high temperatures. She’s also had a couple of strokes and become very fragile. She still paints; she still draws. That’s the only thing she’s ever lived for, really. She still does it, but it’s not as it was.”

The retrospective opened on July 7 and closes on October 24. The museum has extended its visiting hours due to the huge demand.

Portugal’s Minister of Culture, Graça Fonseca, has planned a visit for October 23, according to the Observador.

“I think it’s an inimitable exhibition,” said President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, noting that the retrospective includes important works from diverse collections, many of which have never been seen in public.

“I think, knowing Paula Rego’s work well, having followed closely what was done there in Portugal about Paula Rego’s work, that this exhibition is unique, it is truly unique.”

The retrospective moves on to the Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Hague, the Netherlands, from November 28 to March 20, 2022, and, then, to the Museo Picasso Malaga in Spain from April 26, 2022, to August 21, 2022.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to see the exhibit in Spain,” said the president. “We will see whether or not it will go to Portugal, and when.”

In Paula Rego, Secrets and Stories, the camera catches her as a girl frolicking on an empty Portuguese beach as she narrates:

“When I don’t know where I’m going with a picture, and I don’t know where to put it, I go back to a place I knew as a child.”

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