Paula Rego, an appreciation: ‘She painted to find out what she felt’ | Paula Rego

l first met Paula Rego 20 years ago, interviewed her again when she turned 80 and had a final conversation, by email, in 2021, just before the wonderful retrospective of her work by the Tate; it may have been the last interview she gave. Our first meeting – she would have been in her 60s – was at her studio in Kentish Town. She came across as a thriving Londoner and a staunch Portuguese at the same time.

Come to Me, from Paula Rego’s Jane Eyre series. Copyright Paula Rego, Courtesy of Victoria Miro

Her studio was filled with bizarre creatures – a life-size horse, a stuffed pelican, a battered toy monkey. And there were clothes on racks: a Victorian frock coat, a tomato-colored vest, a taffeta dress. It was like being backstage – she was director, designer, wardrobe mistress all in one. I was impressed by her imagination and everything she had to say. She was about to exhibit her formidable paintings, based on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre† I remember telling her how I marveled at the way she had freed Jane from the straitjacket of an English governess and translated her into a Mediterranean figure in whom desire is starkly exposed. Her Jane, I thought aloud, was not a mouse. At this, Rego, who had until then been speaking in a generous, humble, cooperatively responsive manner, exploded: “I don’t believe in the existence of little mice! Every mouse has guts and teeth and they are terrifying, those little mice. Jane Eyre is actually a bit of a rat, though noble and very proud.”

Throughout her career, Rego’s fight for women was staunch, fierce and complicated: she was not a polemicist, but her work – in particular the 1998 series of 10 paintings on abortion – did more than any verbal demonstration to raise awareness of the Portuguese anti- to change abortion. law. Standing up for her was complicated because she didn’t turn her women into heroines, but examined their pain, sorrow, passion and flaws. She continued to express her own feelings about womanhood: several of her best paintings came from her marriage to the artist Victor Willing, who died tragically young of MS.

Paula Rego's The Policeman's Daughter, 1987.
‘What Is She Thinking?’: The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987 by Paula Rego. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro

Rego was certainly not a mouse herself, although you could say – she wouldn’t have minded – that there was a playful monkey inside her (delinquent monkeys appear in beautiful paintings from the 80s). I can still see the mischief in her smile, the quarreling teeth, the flash in her eyes—the sense of the unquenchable child in the older woman. When she was 80, she told me, “I’m not brave in real life, but I’m not afraid to do something in my job.”

I like her work because it does what the best paintings do: it raises questions that cannot be definitively answered. As I flip through the Tate catalog from last year’s retrospective, it strikes me again how rarely her subjects look back at you. There is a sense of transgression when you enter their reverie. This is in part what makes her work powerfully enigmatic and subversive. What’s The Police Officer’s Daughter (1987) while polishing her father’s boot? How the woman without a partner dances in the moonlight in her masterpiece, The dance (1988), feeling in her unsuitable hiking boots? And what, in The family (1988), are we to make the woman who dresses a helpless man – the rudest nurse – her arm over his mouth as if choking him, her own mouth fixed in an expression of unreliable pleasantness? We can’t see the horizon she’s staring at. Rego’s model and friend Lila Nunes, once the family’s au pair, appears repeatedly in these paintings – always and never the same.

One notable thing that emerged from the 2021 interview was that, even in the advanced frailty of old age, Rego continued to work every day at her studio in Kentish Town. I’m tempted to write: she was an inspiration. Yet I know she would have rejected this, saying that work was necessary to survive and that painting was who she was. She told me in our last conversation that she painted to find out what she was feeling: there was no such thing as known quantities or drawn conclusions. The grief at learning of her death will be felt by all who met her, however briefly, and by countless admirers around the world, but her incomparable paintings will leave us guessing: they will never be resolved, never in the past. time.

The dance of Paula Rego, 1988.
‘Her Masterpiece’: The Dance of Paula Rego, 1988. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro

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