Stray Dogs, Paula Rego’s famous painting from 1965, depicts a hideous episode that occurred in Barcelona when poisoned meat intended to kill street dogs, ended up killing street children who had mistakenly picked it up. Along the top section of the painting a monstrous female form—that we now know to be a portrayal of her husband’s new lover—farts out a phallic shaped-tongue over the ensuing scene. This intermingling of the private and the public, of the intimate with the political, is one of the astounding facets of Paula Rego’s work. An ability that has always charged her paintings and prints with a unique psychic and emotional drama.
As she recounts the story of the painting to her son Nick Willing, in the newly released documentary Paula Rego: Stories and Secrets, what comes across most is the strange glee at having caught her husband “snogging with this woman”. A kind of relief at finally having found something to complete the painting. All her pictures have stories, but it is “the personal secrets in the pictures,” according to Willing, “that give the works their power.”
Widely regarded as the best painter of woman’s experience working today, Germaine Greer once wrote that “No other artist has ever come close to capturing Rego’s sense of the phantasmagoria that is female reality.” Her themes of abortion, virginity, childhood, domestic life and abuse, are in part reactions against her middle class upbringing in fascist Portugal, where women were often brutalized by their husbands, and were largely powerless to determine the course of their own lives.
Throughout the film her shyness and insecurity is relentlessly probed, and one of the biggest revelations to emerge is the story of her fateful first meeting with Nick’s father, the painter Victor Willing. An event seared into her mind because of the manner in which he beckoned her into a room and told her to strip. “I just did it” recounts Rego, “I was a virgin, so you can imagine the mess that caused.” Victor Willing who was married at the time, was one of the shooting stars of 1960s London. Great friends with Francis Bacon, his intelligence and cruelty casts a long shadow across the film.
Rego was born in Portugal in 1935, but was persuaded by her liberal father to leave and move to London and attend The Slade School of Fine Art. It was the making of her. At just 19 she was awarded the Summer Prize for painting, an event that she even today considers to be her proudest achievement: “Even though I was a foreigner and a woman, they thought my picture was the best.”
Although suffering a series of career setbacks in the 70s and early 80s, she followed her husband’s advice and returned to myths and ancient folklore. She read everything she could get her hands on concerning British and Portuguese fairytales (by far the “grimmest”) at the reading room of the British Museum. The resultant works were a revelation. Laden with mysterious narratives the domestic bourgeois scenes were transmuted into a grotesque reality. Mothers and daughters, young girls with their pets, saturated with sexual desire and feelings of guilt. Her subsequent exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 1988—the year she was nominated for the Turner Prize—produced a stream of ecstatic media coverage.
During the documentary Nick Willing interviews his two siblings and a picture forms of an artist who puts her work above all other considerations. The children were not allowed in the studio even “when they were banging on the door”. “To be a great artist,” Nick explains “her emotional energy had to go into her work. Particularly if you are a woman, and the kids want more of you.”
At 81 Rego still cuts a sprightly figure, although suffering from back pain she works constantly. Some critics have condemned her work for too often depicting passive women, subservient to naturally powerful men. The feminist message getting lost in the squatting figures of contorted female forms, wearing expressions of fear, concern, triumph and vengefulness. Yet feminist issues are at the forefront of her practice. In the 1990s a series of hard-hitting abortion pastels were believed to have swayed public opinion in Portugal to such an extent that the people voted to legalize it in 2000.
The son’s fascination for Paula Rego’s life and art is the driving force behind the documentary, as he picks apart his own relationship to her, and her complicated and consuming love for his father, who died in 1988—shortly before Rego became a household name. As Nick Willing freely admits she remains the biggest “mystery of my life.” Throughout we are given a powerfully honest reflection on the work of this great artist, and her ultimate “marriage to (her) pictures.”
By Duncan Ballantyne-Way – Senior Editor
Paula Rego: Stories and Secrets can be viewed by UK residents on the BBC iPlayer. For those outside the UK the documentary will soon also be shown at specially designated cinemas.