Paula Rego: Comically Grotesque, Viscerally Feminine

Federico Rosa

Portuguese artist Paula Rego combines seemingly disparate themes and traditions in her work, merging the comic and the grotesque, and bridging the gap between the abstract and the figurative. We explore how these incongruent elements cohere into a compelling whole with a closer look at Rego’s life and work.

Drawing on sources as varied as Little Red Riding Hood and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Portuguese artist Paula Rego is highly regarded as one of the finest storytellers in the realm of visual arts. Her prolific output includes drawings, paintings, and prints. Her works generally depict curious, often eerie narratives that reflect a vibrant mixture of feminist ideology, Portuguese folktales, Surrealism, and existential angst.

Born in 1935 in Lisbon to a well-established middle-class family, Rego was sent to England by herself at the age of 16 to attend finishing school, but instead she attempted to enrol in the Chelsea School of Art. After overcoming the initial reluctance of her caretaker, Rego was eventually encouraged to continue her art studies. She went on to attend the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied between 1952 and 1956. It was here that she would meet her future husband and fellow artist, Victor Willing.
Around this time, Rego’s work was very abstract, influenced partly by Spanish artist Joan Miró as well as automatic drawing. This early style could be seen at least partly as a reaction to the highly refined, figurative style then proposed at Slade. Even at her most abstract, however, Rego would always have a semblance of figuration and narrative within her images, such as in her 1966 painting Salazar Vomiting the Homeland, in which forms evoke the human body in unsettling ways. Born during the right-wing, authoritarian government of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, much of Rego’s work bears the evidence of the repression endured during those years, especially against women, and their experience of cruelty.

These influences are reflected more clearly in later paintings, where a subtle menace underlies the apparent naïveté and humor of Rego’s compositions. In her 1982 painting Nanny, Small Bears, and Bogeymen, traditional fairytale archetypes are depicted in a crude painting style that is at once reminiscent of both expressionist painting and children’s drawings. In this image, a mounting tension betrays the bright coloring. A comic, yet menacing, figure – the bogeyman – brandishes a knife-like instrument against the small bears, who appear to be protected by the nanny, a mother-like figure and protector, until one notices the bears’ strapped to her body. This style of painting remained in Rego’s works during much of the 1980s, until she departed to a more refined figurative style.
In The Dance, produced in 1988, we see what could be a childhood memory or the re-telling of a folktale. The dreamlike quality of the scene is enhanced by the expressions on the dancers’ faces, and the dark, muted palette tones. The only source of light is the full moon, which creates an uncanny atmosphere or a sense of latent threat, unlike the jovial festiveness associated with a dance. In another sense, the painting could be read as an allegory, in which the different stages of a woman’s life are depicted. In this painting, Rego has departed from her more aggressive, expressionistic style towards allegory and Magical Realism.

The subject of femininity and gender roles is a recurring theme in Rego’s work. In The Bride of 1994, which is a pastel drawing, a female figure lies in a reverie, her face expressionless yet betraying a hint of nostalgia, while she dons a bride’s veil. The woman, though not old, is however, not as young as we would expect a ‘typical’ bride to be. Perhaps this woman is reminiscing about her happier days as a bride, or perhaps she is unmarried, wondering what her life would be like if she would have been. In either case, the typical gender role is put under scrutiny: why is the importance of a female in a given society contingent on her marital status?
The role of women in society is also present in Rego’s etchings and aquatints, for example in a series on themes such as illegal abortions, sex-trafficking, and domestic abuse. In Him, a 1996 etching, a ravenous werewolf lustily gorges on a girl, who seemingly attempts to keep the animal at bay. A disturbing and sexual image, it depicts a woman who is confident and unafraid of the beast upon her. Also, upon closer inspection, the werewolf does not seem that menacing but rather dumbfounded by his own rapacity. This portrayal of men as dependent, childlike creatures may be best exemplified in Rego’s interpretations of William Hogarth’s Marriage á la Mode. In Rego’s version, entitled The Shipwreck (1999), the women are envisaged as strong and confident, even if they are adhering to social norms and rituals. The men, however, are drunk, lazy, and fearful; lying on women’s laps, and clinging to them for protection. While not vilifying men, she definitely challenges patriarchal norms through a strong female gaze.

In her painting War (2003), Rego fuses the topics of sexuality, the language of fairy tales, and social criticism. In this work, Rego takes inspiration from a photograph taken during the Iraq war in which a woman clings to her wounded child. Returning to a more expressionistic handling of materials, she composes an image in which a hybrid rabbit-woman clings to her wounded daughter, standing amidst a slew of other creatures in a macabre, post-apocalyptic setting.

Part Lewis Carroll, part Julia Kristeva and part CNN, it is in the synthesis of all these elements, both realistic and fantastic, that Rego achieves the potent effects of images such as this one, that verge on the macabre or the grotesque, but never stray far from the beautiful. In her own words, which she has expressed in interviews, what interests her is depicting “the beautiful grotesque.” A museum dedicated to her work has been created in Cascais, Portugal, called Casa das Histórias or ‘The House of Stories’.

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