When a picture is worth 1000 words
What do you get when you combine a woman, an artist, a dame, a feminist and an individual who uses her art to campaign against social injustice, misogyny and fascism? Well the extraordinary Portuguese artist Paula Rego fits the bill perfectly.
She was born in Lisbon in 1935, and in her early years lived with her grandmother while her father worked in the UK. She moved to the UK at the age of 16 to finish her education, and in 1952 went on to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. She rebelled against the precise anatomical drawing taught at the Slade, and instead developed a semi-abstract style that favours magical realism.
I am no art critic, but Rego’s oil paintings, pastels and collages are overwhelmingly inspiring and fascinating. In the early 1960s, Rego began exhibiting with the London Group, whose members included David Hockney and Frank Auerbach. From then on her works were increasingly shown in both Portugal and the UK. Highly prolific in terms of output, in her lifetime she has explored various styles and themes, including stories from the folk tales learned at her grandmother’s knee, and depictions of the injustices women face in society that also celebrate their strength in adversity.
Many books and articles have been written about Rego’s work and styles, but one aspect of her artistic output is particularly powerful in my view. In 1998, Portugal held a referendum on the laws on abortion; at that time it was illegal, and a proposal had been made to change the law to allow abortion during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. A coalition backed by the Church demanded a referendum on the issue; less than 32% of the population voted, and the proposed change was defeated by less than 2 percentage points.
Rego was appalled at the result. She had witnessed the misery caused by illegal back street abortions in Portugal and, following the referendum, she produced a number of untitled drawings and paintings depicting women undergoing these types of abortion. The focus of the images is the women’s distress and anguish – they are always alone and unattended in the pictures, yet they are not portrayed as passive victims. Nevertheless, they are not easy viewing.
When the pictures were exhibited in Portugal, Rego explained to the press that they were based on her own experiences of illegal abortion and those she had seen in the poor areas near where she had grown up. She is quoted as saying: ‘Naturalism is very out of fashion, but I do not care. These silent paintings with their grave answers will resist.’
In 2007 another referendum was held in Portugal on whether to legalise abortion up to 10 weeks; this time it was passed.
Paula Rego may be Portuguese, but she has made the UK her home. She was the first artist-in-residence at the National Gallery in London, and was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2010. Her work is available in numerous collections around the world. If you’re visiting Tate Britain any time before 27 August 27, she is amongst the artists included in an exhibition entitled ‘All Too Human’: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/paula-rego-1823