The wickedness of Paula Rego’s imagination shines like patent leather in her 1987 painting The Policeman’s Daughter. A young woman is polishing, as the title tells us, her father’s jackboot. He is nowhere to be seen, but the spectre of a man we take to be an authoritarian bully haunts the fetish object that is his boot. His daughter has her arm sunk into it, right down to the sole, as if she is being swallowed, or willingly immersing herself in a dubious sensual communion with an image of brutality. It is a painting of compromise, corruption and the squalor of power.
Rego refused to waste her life like this woman, lost in the dusty perversions of an authoritarian regime, or in the more polite claustrophobia of the English middle-class family.
Born in Portugal in 1935, she was encouraged by her parents to escape António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship by going to finishing school in Britain. She went on to study fine art at the Slade in the 1950s and started a relationship there with the Egyptian-born artist Victor Willing, whom she married. British figurative painting was in a golden age. Artists as diverse as Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and David Hockney were interpreting the fragile, mortal stuff of human bodies and faces in daring, radical, enduring ways. Rego was to add a completely different and original dimension to this “school of London”, as some called it, by mixing a pummeling, unforgiving yet erotic eye for the physical with storytelling that was bigger, more free and more cinematic than her British realist contemporaries. And she has a distinct perspective on the games of power she paints: she is the daughter, not the policeman.
By the time Rego painted mature masterpieces such as The Policeman’s Daughter, Salazar was dead. It is not a realist depiction of the Portugal of her childhood, although Rego had kept a foot in her homeland, living between the two countries for many years. The Policeman’s Daughter looks to me like a surrealist film that has been turned into a painting. It also has a lot in common with the magic realist fiction of the late 20th century, from Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.
Rego is a magic realist to the letter, mixing fact and fantasy, a connoisseur of fairytales. The cat in The Policeman’s Daughter seems to know something we don’t. In other paintings and prints Rego gives forceful life to classic stories, often with very harsh twists: in her 1995 painting Snow White and her Stepmother, a gawky, inelegant adolescent has her knickers forcefully pulled down by her stiletto-wearing custodian to check if she is a virgin who can be married to a prince.
We are in a Neverland of time and place, somewhere between the present day, the repressive Portugal into which Rego was born and pure imagination. A world, anyway, where stepmothers scrutinize the sexuality of stepdaughters. And that strangeness seemed to surround Rego wherever she was, even in the most intimate moments of her own life. The first time I stood, stunned, before her 1988 painting The Family, I thought I was seeing a long overdue feminist revenge. The man of the family flops helplessly in the hands of his wife and daughter, who may be either dressing him or undressing him. The girl manhandles the creases in his trousers while his wife looks away dreamily, doing her cruel work absentmindedly. Because she does it every day.
I had no idea then of Rego’s personal history. In the year this and other powerfully timeless paintings of sex and power were first shown at the Serpentine Gallery, her husband, Willing, died after being ill for years with multiple sclerosis. So there is a reason the man in The Family appears so helpless: far from assailing him in a righteous gender rebellion, the Rego figure and her daughters are dressing someone with MS.
But of course, that doesn’t settle it. The sense of rage is real. It is the honestly confessed frustration of a woman who finds herself the helper of a paralysed husband. A straightforward portrayal of patriarchy under attack would be so much easier to explain. But like her peers, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Rego is obsessively and dangerously honest. Her feminism comes with a true artist’s courage to show what shouldn’t be shown. She shares, in The Family, the complex and for most people unutterable feelings you may have in this awful situation. We know what the wife is thinking as her eyes drift off. She is thinking, despite herself: when will this be over?
I don’t think such a brave and searching artist can be summed up, as she was by some fans in her last years, including the curators of her 2021 Tate retrospective, as a political warrior pure and simple. That would make her a much narrower artist than she is. And before she is anything else, she is a painter who mixed the British eye for sharp reality with a sense of fantasy and theater that reflects her Catholic heritage. She has a raw appetite for the human body, muscled and powerful (I am speaking of the women), that has much in common with Freud. But unlike him, she loves a good story. She is a narrative artist or “history painter” in the tradition of Hogarth and Goya.
In her 1999 painting The Betrothal, she reworks Hogarth’s Marriage la Mode in her own uneasily timeless setting, which seems to be simultaneously north London and Portugal, where a woman with a massive shiny hairstyle, a resting dog, a hair salon and the deposition of Christ are among the normal and abnormal things all strangely juxtaposed. One of the questions that fascinate Rego as a painter is how a picture tells a story, how it differs from a film or novel. In a painting you can see a sequence of events all at the same time, by glancing through the panels of a series or maybe seeing them all compressed in one canvas. Cinema cannot do that, or a novel, or video art. But a painting can abolish time, or turn it into a multi-directional flow, or just leave a tale unfinished. This is why Rego’s storytelling is so ambiguous and rich.
The freakishness of her imagination had no limits. Her style may match Freud’s but she had read a lot more of his grandfather Sigmund. The Cadet and his Sister (1988) is another grand monument to the unjust and the perverse. In a park straight out of the cold surreal scenes of Giorgio de Chirico, a young woman kneels to do up her brother’s shoe. The severity of his uniform is matched by the repressed formality of her clothes and the kinky objects beside her: a cathedral-shaped handbag and gloves. This is a Freudian nightmare in which repressed emotions flow in the most perverse channels imaginable. Is Rego angry? Or is she amused by the antics of human sexuality? It makes Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie seem conventional.
When Rego painted her tragicomic, unsettling histories of power and violence in the 1980s, there was a vogue for big, bold paintings. But that vanished overnight. The cool way to tell stories in art became photography or video. Rego was in the wrong place at the wrong time: London was sold in the 1990s on the slightly naive belief that painting, which had lasted since the stone age, was suddenly “dead”.
Rego drifted out of the mainstream, but perhaps she always belonged in a musty, mysterious world of her own between past and present. Her later works have a caustic power. Taking up the medium of pastels, the oil crayons previously used by Degas, she depicted her enigmatic scenarios more intensely and sensually than ever. In her 1994 picture Dog Woman, a woman has been made to go down on all fours. She scrunches her face, as if barking. Who forced her to do this? It may be a policeman in a fascist regime. Or it may just be a man demanding sadomasochist thrills.
It is an image of opportunity but also an artistic exploration of the body as a vehicle of emotion. This and the other mighty pastels in the same series all feature models adopting extreme, expressive poses. This is not a crude scream of a picture. It is a master’s exploration of the nude that consciously echoes the suffering bodies of Michelangelo’s prisoners or the classical Niobids. Does that seem a stretch? Rego was deeply aware of the history of art: one of her ambitious paintings is the mural she created in the National Gallery in 1990, full of erudite jokes on paintings in its collection. Her politics is always poetic, her art always literate.
Rego will, above all, be remembered as a brave artist. Even now, I sense there is a background of private stories, suffering and, yes, jokes in her art that we have yet to digest and understand. There is surely a great biography to be written. There is plenty of material to tease out. Knowing more of the relationships between her childhood and immigration, marriage and love life will change how we see her enigmatic art.
For now she is in her own painted world, somewhere in the Bay of Biscay, between cultures and times in an anachronistic magic reality. In her 1988 painting The Dance, people dressed in 1950s suits and folk skirts dance by moonlight on her beach. The faces include her husband and son. There is a fortress on the skyline but no soldiers are coming: the dancers are safe for now, in their formal, stately gentleness. No one is being tortured. No one is dying. This is where Rego must be dancing now, among the greats.