By Sharon VanStarkenburg
(Previous: Featured Artist)
I was once asked by an arts writer why I never painted men. I replied that I was terrified of what might come out of me and that once I’d opened that dam, I might never be able to close it again. Older than me by a couple of decades, she chuckled and assured me it wouldn’t last forever. I wasn’t convinced then and continue to give the subject a wide berth now. It isn’t a mystery why I am loath to express rage, especially towards a man, or patriarchy as a whole, in a public forum. After all, women are taught that their anger is ugly, impolite, and unhealthy. They are accused of being shrill and difficult, transgressive to gender and threatening to social order. There are penalties for women that do choose to speak up and out; sometimes these are swift and direct, at other times they are difficult to pin down and measure. After all, how does one determine what might have been? This is especially true in the arts, where success is contingent on so many factors, many of which are subjective.
Of Paula Rego’s array of muses, the most potent seems to have been fury. An extremely fearful child (a disposition that she apparently contended with her entire life), she found therapeutic comfort in stories. Not soothing stories, mind you, but violent and terrifying tales through which she could exorcise her own anxieties. In one story from her childhood a woodcutter’s wife cuts off her own breasts, cooks them and serves them to the family when they run out of food, her husband sighs when he realizes the children must be eaten next. Rego used such fables as starting points for paintings and drawings throughout her career. She also explored the darker versions and interpretations of tales such as Snow White (Figure 1), Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio. While living with her grandmother as a child she was introduced to Portuguese folklore and later she was also influenced by philosophy, the work of other artists (such as Robert Mapplethorpe) (Figure 2), plays, novels and other fairy tales. She adopted these as ways of addressing larger issues, but also her personal dramas. What is so affecting in most of her work is the taut aggression expressed in them (Figure 3). It seems that while Rego experienced terror and bouts of depression, she was also extremely ambitious and career-driven; these disparate drives and temperaments gave rise to frustrated anger, but they also generated a wild productive fury in her.
To elaborate on the metaphor of harnessed rage: I don’t mean to say that she tamed it. Rego permitted her rancour a life of its own, a force of creativity to be exploited in the studio. She said that part of her satisfaction in making work was that she could be as violent as she liked. In the documentary made by her son, Secrets and Stories, she stated “If you don’t like something, you can cut it up, scratch it. If there’s someone you don’t like, you can scratch them all over. I mean, you can let out all your anger.” Startlingly cavalier in the both the documentary and interviews, Rego rarely held back expressing contentious feelings or opinions. Instead of tamping them down, hiding them in oblique images, or making work therapeutically to distract her from such agitations, Rego permitted them to inform her work or, indeed, to become the subject matter. Even her move from paint to pastel was in service of the emotional needs of the studio. In the same documentary she said, “I’m not a painter really. I’m a drawer. I draw a lot. I don’t like it when you paint and the brush bends. When you draw you can push your pencil or your pastel—everything is much more violent.” Fierce and unruly, she granted her personal muse free reign in the studio.
Rego’s oeuvre is intertextual, with her biography being but one of the elements to read, along with other narratives, some classic and identifiable and others more esoteric. But from whence came Paula Rego’s rage, what is the source of her personal wrath? There are plenty of flash points in her life to identify, many of which can also be situated within greater contexts of misogyny and injustice. Studying art, itself, and the intent to have a career were denunciations of the role prescribed for her by culture and family. Rego’s mother was especially overbearing in her attempts to restrain her, and she lived in resentful terror of her until she died in 2001. Rego grew up in the repressive regime of Salazar and a weaponized version of Catholicism in Portugal (Figure 4) and was sent there to live with her grandmother while her parents moved to Britain. She later moved to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. Rego reports having several abortions while an art student, though all the pregnancies, starting at the age of 18, were by Victor Willing. A fellow student, Willing, who was older than Rego and married when he began his affair with her, first approached her to pose nude for him. In fact, the first time they slept together he brought her to a room at a party and told her to take down her knickers. Rego was a virgin and afterwards she went home alone in a cab while he cleaned up the “mess.” He repeatedly threatened to return to his wife with each pregnancy if Rego chose to keep the child. Rego recalled that most of the women she studied with had abortions, and she especially highlighted the vastly different consequences for the men and women involved in
these unplanned pregnancies. She opted for these abortions because if not, she would have been forced to quit her studies and return to Portugal. She was steadfastly unwilling to give up her dreams of becoming an artist. Eventually Rego decided to keep the latest of Willing’s children and begrudgingly moved back to Portugal, having to face the judgement of her parents, especially her mother’s. Willing also made good on his threats and temporarily returned to his wife. Later, when Rego and Willing were married with several children, it was discovered that he was involved in multiple affairs. Once when she was painting, she went downstairs and found him kissing another woman, so she ran to the neighbour’s in tears. The neighbour, too, burst out crying because she had also slept with Willing. Rego told her son that after that she went back to the studio and painted in the lover as a “lewd monster with her tongue hanging out.” Rego was, apparently, both in love with and in awe of Willing while also being deeply hurt by him. He was frequently cruel and demanding, even unwilling to say that he loved her. In 1967 Willing was diagnosed with MS and Rego became his carer; over time his condition worsened until he became completely dependent on others for all aspects of care. This situation also created a strange shift in power within her marriage, a peculiar mingling of love and resentment. He passed away in 1988, after which Rego experienced a long and deep depression.
Rego also endured limitations on her career likely due to being a woman, and an outspoken one at that. Early in her career she was severely criticized for making figurative work which had fallen out of favour at that time; this had a lasting negative impact on her, though she nevertheless persevered in that vein. Rego has been associated with the London Group, which also includes figures such as David Hockney and Frank Auerbach, since 1962. However, initially, she struggled for recognition, recalling that gallerists wouldn’t actually look at her images while flipping through her portfolio. Her husband was always positioned as the true artistic genius, and her natural place was in a supportive role. It is possible that Willing’s illness and decline into complete dependency may have been the paradigm shift she needed to see herself as competent. Still, she achieved career milestones later in life than her male counterparts, her first major exhibition in Britain wasn’t until 1987. She was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1989 and a retrospective in Portugal in 2004. Her first retrospective at Tate Britain was in 2021, a far cry from her male counterparts, such as David Hockney (1988).
In her painting Pregnant Rabbit Telling Her Parents (Figure 5) Rego alludes to fearfully approaching her own parents with the news that she is pregnant, but also the plight of many women in cultures that police women’s bodies, reproductive rights, and autonomy in general. The stuffed animal characters reference Willing’s own puppets and dolls, avatars Rego used repeatedly in her work. In Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey’s Tail (Figure 6) she portrays an enactment of revenge for Willing’s adultery. Rego stated that while the animals belonged to him, what happened to them (in her paintings) was hers. The red monkey, a doll of Willing’s that became his stand-in for many pictures, is frequently cruel to his wife such as, in one piece, giving her a poison dove. In fact, Rego has said that most of her rabbit, dog, and abortion pictures were about Willing. In Target (Figure 7) a woman is kneeling to aid her husband in shooting her (as described by Rego’s son), an image of masochistic sublimation. Her series of paintings about illegal abortions was neither a critique of the women getting them, nor an attempt to represent them as subjugated victims. Rather, she stated that she was trying to get justice for them, but also revenge. It was important for her that she convey the fear, pain and danger involved in illegal abortions, as a statement against the criminalization of the procedure (Figure 8). Rego also made work critiquing such horrors as genital mutilation, human trafficking, honour killings, and war.
Paula Rego is a complex figure to reckon with. It is generally unwise to interpret an artist’s work through the single lens of biography, and she is no exception, despite the fact that she could never talk about one without the other. She is at some moments a sympathetic character: abandoned by her parents to be raised by a grandmother, a manic-depressive aunt, and a host of female staff, some of whom were bullies. At others, she is devious and cruel: defiantly cutting up curtains in front of her aunt, too depressed to move. While she endured Willing’s infidelities, she took her own lover after MS began to affect Willing. While resentful of being left behind by her parents, she did exactly the same to her own children. And if she deigned to bring them along on a painting trip, she would not answer the studio door if they came knocking. Once her son slid a drawing under the door to appease her; she cut it up and put in a drawing of her own. In her son’s documentary she is reminded that she had said that the most important aspect of her life was being an artist, more than any relationship, and rather than soften the statement with any qualifying remarks, she doubled down and said that she was glad she had communicated that to them. Later in life Rego explained that she, too, managed manic-depression, with less of the manic episodes (which she missed) as she aged. These complex emotional states within one person, highly charged and sparking rage and defiance, are not separate from the work, either. Rather, Rego harnessed her rage and followed it into the dark, erotic, vindictive, fierce, and wounded places it charged into.
VanStarkenburg was born in Pembroke, ON in 1974. She earned her BFA from the University of Ottawa in 1997, studied at NYU, (Masters level Fine Arts 2007) and is an MFA graduate from the University of Ottawa (2018). She is the recipient of grants from The Canada Council for the Arts, The Ontario Arts Council, and The City of Ottawa, as well as other prestigious arts awards. Her current work can be found on Instagram @sharonvanstarkenburgart.