The painter Paula Rego died this Wednesday in London at the age of 87 and the president of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, described her death as a “national loss”. The Portuguese government has declared an official day of mourning. On April 26, Rebelo de Sousa went to Malaga to inaugurate the great exhibition that the Picasso Museum in the Andalusian city dedicates until August 21 to the Lisbon artist. She, already very poor in health, did not come. They did Nick, the only boy of his three children, and Elena Crippa, curator of British painting at Tate Britain and curator of the exhibition that the London museum dedicated to him in 2021. That was the absolute consecration of the most English of the artists continental. Or vice versa.
Rego spent most of his life in Britain, but his work is incomprehensible without his native country. In fact, the three pillars of the Salazar dictatorship – “God, Country and Family” – would serve, conveniently perverted, to define his painting. Maria Paula Paiva de Figueiroa Rego was born in Lisbon on January 26, 1935, that is, two years after the dictator consolidated the Estado Novo, the totalitarian regime that would last until the Carnation Revolution of 1974. She was the only daughter of an anglophile, antifascist and anticlerical couple who sent her to Kent at the age of 16 to spare her the indoctrination of the Salazarist school. A year later, already at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London, she met a painting student named Victor Willing, Vic, with whom she would end up marrying and, until his death, maintaining a stable but peppered relationship with lovers. both sides.
During the visit to the exhibition at the Picasso Museum, Elena Crippa analyzed the aesthetic keys of one of the most important painters of recent European art, the woman who – like Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud – kept alive the flame of figuration in times when abstraction and conceptual art became a hegemonic trend to the point of almost certifying, for the umpteenth time, the death of painting. Next to her, Nick Willing Rego revealed the biographical keys. If she highlighted the passage from oil to collage and from this to pastel ―the technique that made her famous―, he explained the who is who in love triangles represented by animals or in dramatic staging – between mannerist and expressionist – arising from the depression that devastated her mother in 1966. If she spoke of the influence of Jean Dubuffet, the brut artGoya, the comic or a sinful Walt Disney, he underlined the political commitment that promoted canvases such as Salazar vomiting the homeland (1960) or the feeling of guilt that underlies series like the marriage contract (1999).
Paula Rego’s work is full of twisted versions of children’s tales and stories to keep you awake, illustrations for literary works by Jean Genet or Eça de Queirós, and feminist manifestos for the right to abortion or against trafficking in women. “Story junkie”, as her son described her, it is no coincidence that the fascinating museum that bears her name in Cascais, half an hour from Lisbon, on the Atlantic coast, is called Casa das Historias. It was designed by Eduardo Souto de Moura, a Pritzker architecture prize winner from Porto, and was inaugurated in 2009. The last presentable works of it date from that year, including Draina motherhood that has become an icon as a result of the drama of the refugees from the war in Syria and those displaced by the war in Ukraine.
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Between ongoing shows and future projects, there are currently 26 exhibitions around the world featuring Rego’s work. Among them, with star honors, the collective The Milk of Dreams, hard core of the Venice Biennale inaugurated two months ago. According to the artist herself, it all started in 2007, when the Reina Sofía Museum dedicated a monumental retrospective to her, launching into the international arena an uncomfortable and fascinating work that knew how to synthesize the great tensions of modern art: form and pain, beauty and the sinister. “Something strange that you recognize as familiar.” This is how Paula Rego’s son described the work of her mother, whose hands connected, as she herself said, the canvas with “the guts”. Therefore, because she preferred fierceness to delicacy, she changed the brush for the pastel stick.
Painting was his way of thinking, of shouting, of crying, of analyzing himself. In 1988 she embarked on a canvas almost three meters wide, The dance, a night scene by the sea in which, as a single-frame film, she appears at all ages: as a child, pregnant dancing with her fiancé, as an adult with her lover and alone. In the middle of the process, her husband died, suffering from multiple sclerosis for two long decades. She was devastated, she was only able to get out of herself the day she got out of bed and said to her family: “We are going to finish the painting.” And she had her son pose for one of the male figures. This was Paula Rego, the artist in which cruelty and innocence are mixed, the woman who described the act of giving birth as “having a great fuck”. And where she says to give birth, it is worth saying to paint.