Paula Rego, whose art captured ‘beautiful grotesqueness’, dies at 87

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Drawing inspiration from myths, folk tales and her own upbringing under a dictatorship in Portugal, artist Paula Rego has produced playful, menacing and psychologically complex paintings and drawings. They had, she says, a sense of “grotesque beauty” and explored questions of female agency and identity through their unsettling depictions of Disney-like animals and monumental women.

For her “Dog Women” series in the 1990s, she showed solitary women posed like animals – squatting, lying down, screaming on all fours. The images were tinged with violence and eroticism, as in other works in which she showed a woman cutting off a monkey’s tail with oversized scissors, an angel” wielding a sponge in one hand and a sword in the other, and a young woman polishing the knee high police boot.

As Ms. Rego said, art was a way to overcome fear and trauma, to soothe and comfort as well as to erase, attack, scratch and destroy. “In my photos, I could do anything,” she said in the 2017 documentary “Paula Rego: Secrets & Stories,” directed by her son, Nick Willing. “Work is the most important thing in life – it is for me.”

Ms Rego was 87 when she died on June 8 at her north London home, not far from the converted stretcher factory she used as a studio. The Victoria Miro gallery, which represents her, announced his death but did not cite a specific cause.

Although she grew up on the Portuguese coast, Ms Rego spent much of her career in Britain, where she rose to prominence as one of the country’s most renowned and inventive artists. Queen Elizabeth II made her a Dame Commander, one of the country’s highest honours, in 2010, and Tate Britain held an extensive retrospective of her work last year.

“An uncompromising artist of extraordinary imaginative power, she revolutionized the way women are portrayed,” the museum said. said at the time. Some of his works are exhibited at the Venice Biennale, one of the leading events in the art world.

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For years, however, Ms. Rego was largely overlooked, launching her career in the 1950s as a figurative artist at a time when abstraction was in vogue. She was a rare woman on the London scene – she didn’t care about men, she said, ‘because you could seduce them if you wanted to’ – and felt disconnected from existing art movements. His first solo exhibition, in Lisbon in 1965, shocked some critics with his colorful paintings and collages, which combined newspaper and magazine clippings with his own semi-abstract drawings.

“My inspiration,” she confided to an interviewer at the time, “comes from things that have little to do with painting: caricatures, daily news, things that happen in the street, proverbs, stories for children, children’s games, children’s songs and dances, nightmares, desires, fears.

Many of his works were inspired by literature or nursery rhymes, reusing literary or folkloric characters like the Three Blind Mice, Jane Eyre and Snow White. Animals were often replaced by people, as in his painting “Pregnant Rabbit Telling His Parents”, in which a rabbit is shown delivering unexpected news to its mother, a cat, and father, a cigar-smoking dog. .

Other works were more explicitly political, informed by her childhood under Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, whom she portrayed in paintings like “Salazar Vomiting Homeland” (1960) and “The Imposter” (1964), which imagined him in the form of an octopus.

Ms Rego tackled feminist issues, including female genital mutilation and abortion rights, which inspired some of her best-known works, a series of pastel drawings showing pained but defiant young women just before or after the procedure. A woman was depicted with her feet on folding chairs, which served as makeshift stirrups; others were shown curled up on a bed or lying on the ground.

The abortion series started as a form of protest, after the defeat of a 1998 referendum that would have decriminalized the procedure in Portugal. She also relied on personal experience: as a teenager, Ms Rego had an abortion ‘on the street’ so she could continue her art studies in London, rather than being forced to return to her parents in Portugal.

She said she wanted her work to reveal “the fear, pain and danger of illegal abortion, which desperate women have always resorted to”.

When another abortion vote took place in Portugal in 2007, many of her photos appeared in national newspapers, helping to shape the debate over access to the procedure. The referendum passed, legalizing abortion in the country, and former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio went on to cite “the very harsh brutality of his photos” as “an influence” on the outcome.

Maria Paula Figueiroa Rego was born in Lisbon on January 26, 1935. The following year, her parents moved to England for her father’s job as an electrical engineer. Mrs. Rego was sent to her grandmother, who lived in the fishing village of Ericeira and introduced the young girl to Portuguese folklore.

The stories have become a kind of balm, a source of comfort in a childhood shaped by fear and isolation. “My mother told me I was afraid of flies, but I remember being afraid of everything,” Ms Rego told biographer John McEwen. “I was even afraid of other children. I just couldn’t bear to be kicked out. Oh my god, that was awful. It was just terror, terror.

The art – “pencil scratching on paper and doing something” – also offered an escape. Ms Rego received encouragement from a teacher at the British international school she attended near Lisbon and continued her education at a graduating school in England before enrolling in 1952 at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London.

It was there that she met painter Victor Willing, a glamorous classmate who became famous for his nude studies. He was married at the time, but they began an affair and, after his divorce, married in 1959, deepening a tumultuous relationship that included infidelities on both sides.

At the time, “women were there to be partners and supporters of their artist husbands. I wasn’t one of them,” she said. told the BBC last year. “I wanted to be in the club of the greats, with the great painters that I admired. Just like I had wanted to be Robin Hood and not Maid Marian.

Ms Rego and her husband divided their time between Britain and Portugal before settling permanently in London in the mid-1970s. Over the next decade she and her work began to gain a large audience in Great Britain, where AIR Gallery mounted her first major solo exhibition in London and she was appointed Associate Artist at the National Gallery, which added some of her pieces to its permanent exhibition. collection.

Much of this period was spent caring for her husband, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and died in 1988, the same year Ms Rego painted “Family,” a tender if somewhat disturbing image of a wife and her daughters caring for her crippled husband, helping him get dressed as he sits stiffly on a bed.

In addition to her son, Nick, survivors include two daughters, Cas and Victoria Willing, and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Ms. Rego has remained productive in recent years and has often described art as a form of therapy, a way to “put a face on fear”, as she said in a 2016 interview with The telegraph. She had mixed success (“it’s ridiculous to be so old and so scared”), but still calmed down by turning to stories, whether in the form of childhood memories or folk tales and legends.

“I choose a story,” she added, “so I can use it to paint my own life.”

Dora W. Clawson