Paula Rego brought perversity, violence and political fury to British art

A sun in the belly, with a thousand rays: this is how Pablo Picasso described the incandescent creativity of Henri Matisse. Looking at the work of Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego, I’ve long suspected that something so white-hot must have burned within her too – though after news of her death today , this brightness has, after nearly nine decades, come out.

In the case of Rego, for whom women’s rights have always been a central theme, the light of this “sun” was often political. The daughter of an artist and an engineer who was also an anti-fascist activist, she was – in her work, at least – a crusader, a fighter, someone who ruins a fight. Her images are full of strong women, either self-portraits or, arguably, substitutes for herself. A vengeful “angel” in a resplendent robe, for example, holding a sword and a sponge to mop up the blood she is about to spill, stares at the viewer with the smile of a psychotic gangster. In a 1993 self-portrait, Rego smokes a pipe and sits with his legs apart, like a pirate relaxing in a tavern.

Much of her early work, such as Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960), a dirty view filled with sordid and fragmented biomorphic forms, bravely attacked Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s Estado Novo dictatorship, under which she was born in 1935 Decades later, following a failed referendum campaign to change anti-abortion laws in her native country, she produced a series of unforgettable pastels and etchings evoking the shame and horror of clandestine abortions. who have contributed to changing public opinion in Portugal. It’s a cliché for artists to say they want to change society. Well, Rego did – which might, in the end, prove his most significant achievement.

After studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1950s, where, at 17, she met her future husband, the British painter Victor Willing, she spent a large part of her life in London – and, even if her career was slow to gain momentum (for many years, she once told Tracey Emin, she felt “frustrated and broke”), she finally found a devoted following in Britain. Perhaps her popularity here is due to her being primarily a narrative artist, reminiscent of William Hogarth (whose Marriage a la Mode of c1743 she once updated): many of his magical, realistic works, inspired by folklore, nursery rhymes and fairy tales, have a narrative component that, given our strong literary tradition, resonates on these shores.

Once or twice I argued that this quality was too didactic, even stifling. But no one could deny the powerful sense of dark psychology that Rego was able to summon. Leafing through the catalog of his recent retrospective at the Tate as I type, it is tempting to trace his artistic lineage back to Francisco de Goya. Almost every plate crackles with wickedness, evil, or some strange misdeed; consider, for example, his unsettling 1992 image of a bald Captain Hook, caressing one of the Lost Boys with his metal prosthesis. In addition to dominant females, Rego’s cast roster includes imps, changelings, and various other half-formed denizens of the unconscious. No wonder she once described her hand as a “seismograph” recording the turbulence inside her head.

Dora W. Clawson