A feminist, fighter for justice and extraordinary painter, the major retrospective of Paula Rego is a masterclass of how art can send a message.
Showing at Tate Britain there are more than 100 of her works including large scale-pastels, collages, drawings and etchings. And you can clearly see the development of her style during her hugely influential career from the 1950s to today.
Rego, 86, was born in Lisbon during the dictatorship of Portugal’s António de Oliveira Salazar, when women’s rights were drastically limited. Her parents, who were keen Anglophiles, wanted their daughter to grow up in a liberal country, so at 16 she was enrolled in a finishing school in Kent.
Next came Slade School of Fine Art, after which she went on to incorporate her Portuguese and English influences into her work and build on the feminist and political themes which are her hallmark.
Early works shown include the extraordinary Interrogation, painted in 1950 when she was just 15, and see her beginning to explore social issues. The exhibition includes the intense The Raft and very potent The Policeman’s Daughter. Many relate to Rego’s relationship with her husband, fellow painter Victor Willing, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and died in 1988. The poignancy of 1988’s The Dance, where a woman dances alone, is not lost.
The Artist in Her Studio from 1993 shows a woman who isn’t standing still and pushing herself forward. While Possessions I-VII from 2004 combines her personal experience of depression with inspiration from 19th century staged photographs of women diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’.
Visceral and powerful she doesn’t shy away from issues which have affected women through the decades. Four of her Untitled pastels are displayed depicting women who have undergone abortion illegally and its aftermath. A referendum to change the law in 1998 in Portugal failed but Rego’s paintings in response are said to have been pivotal in helping change the law in 2007.
The final room looks at the different forms of abuse of women from trafficking to genital mutilation. They are not easy paintings to look at and will make you stop and think – that after all is what Rego is about.
Paula Rego runs at Tate Britain from July 7 to October 24, tate.org.uk
By Margaret Hussey
The Artist in Her Studio, 1993. Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. / Bridgeman Images © Paula Rego The Raft 1985. Private Collection, London © Paula Rego
The Little Murderess 1987. Private Collection, England © Paula Rego The Dance 1988. Tate © Paula Rego
The Cadet and His Sister, 1988. Private Collection © Paula Rego
Feature image: The Dance 1988. Tate © Paula Rego