Paula Rego established an early reputation with her surreal collages, later populated with subversive cartoon-like animals. In 1988, a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London confirmed her international reputation. A powerful original female voice, she is now one of Europe's most sought after artists
Rego was born in the Portuguese capital Lisbon, the daughter of an electrical engineer who worked for the Marconi Company. Although this gave her a comfortable middle class home, the family was divided in 1936 when her father was posted to work in the United Kingdom. Accompanied by Rego's mother, they left Rego behind in Portugal in the care of her grandmother until 1939. Her grandmother was to become a significant figure in Rego's life as she learnt many of the traditional folktales that would one day make their way into her art work from her grandmother and the family maid.
Rego's family were keen Anglophiles, and Rego was sent to the only English language school in Portugal at the time, Saint Julian's School in Carcavelos from 1945 to 1951. Although nominally a Catholic and living in a devoutly Catholic country, St Julian's School was Anglican and this combined with the hostility of Rego's father for the Catholic Church to create a distance between her and full blooded Catholic belief. Rego has described herself as having become a 'sort of Catholic', but equally she possessed as a child a sense of Catholic guilt and a very real belief that the Devil is real.
In 1951 Rego was sent to the United Kingdom to attend a finishing school called The Grove School, in Sevenoaks, Kent. Unhappy here, Rego attempted in 1952 to start studies in art at the Chelsea School of Art in London, but this was thwarted by her legal guardian in Britain, David Phillips, who feared her parents might not approve of their daughter mixing with art students. Returning to Portugal for the holidays that summer Rego discovered quite the opposite was true, and so she applied to study art in London again, this time at the Slade School of Fine Art, which she attended from 1952 to 1956.
At the Slade Rego met her future husband, Victor Willing, also a student at the Slade, although he was already married at the time. Rego and Willing left London to live in Portugal with Rego's parents in 1957, and they were able to marry in 1959 following Willing's divorce. Three years later Rego's father bought the couple a house in London, at Albert Street in Camden Town and Rego's time was spent divided between Britain and Portugal. In 1966 Rego's father died, and the family electrical business was taken over, unwillingly, by Rego's husband, although he had himself been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The company failed in 1974 during the Portuguese Revolution that overthrew the country's right wing Estado Novo (Portugal) dictatorship, with the production works taken over by the revolutionary forces, even though Rego's family had been supporters of the political left. As a result Rego, Willing and their children moved permanently to London and spent most of their time there until Willing's death in 1988.
Although Rego was commissioned by her father to produce a series of large scale murals to decorate the works' canteen at his electrical factory in 1954 whilst she was still a student, Rego's artistic career effectively began in the early 1962 when she began showing with The London Group, a long established artists' organisation which included David Hockney and Frank Auerbach among its members. In 1965 she was selected by Roland Penrose to take part in a group show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, and that same year she had her first solo show at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (SNBA) in Lisbon. She was also the Portuguese representative at the 1969 São Paulo Art Biennial. Between 1971 and 1978 she was to have seven solo shows in Portugal, in Lisbon and Oporto, and then a series of solo exhibitions in Britain, including at the AIR Gallery in London in 1981, the Arnolfini in Bristol in 1983, and the Edward Totah Gallery, London in 1984, 1985 and 1987. She also held solo shows in Amsterdam at Espace in 1983, and the Art Place in New York in 1985.
In 1988 Rego was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and the Serpentine Gallery in London. This led on to Rego being invited to become the first 'Associate Artist' at the National Gallery, London in 1990, in what was the first of a series of artist-in-residence schemes organised by the gallery. From this emerged two sets of work. The first was a series of paintings and prints on the theme of nursery rhymes, which was toured around Britain and elsewhere by the Arts Council of Great Britain and British Council from 1991 to 1996. The second was a series of large scale paintings inspired by the paintings of Carlo Crivelli in the National Gallery, known as 'Crivelli’s Garden' which are now housed in the main restaurant at the gallery.
Rego was signed by the London based gallery Marlborough Fine Art in 1987, and has shown there on numerous occasions, including a series of works based on Peter Pan in 1992, the celebrated 'Dog Woman' series in 1994, and 'Oratorio', a triptych format altarpiece, in 2010 created for the exhibition 'Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin & Paula Rego at the Foundling Museum', held at the Foundling Museum, London.
Other exhibitions include a retrospective at Tate Liverpool in 1997, Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1998, Tate Britain in 2005 and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2007. A major retrospective was also held of her work at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid in 2007, which travelled to the Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, the following year.
In 2008 Rego showed at Marlborough Chelsea in New York, and staged a retrospective of her graphic works at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Nîmes. As well as showing at Marlborough Fine Art in London in 2010, the art critic Marco Livingstone organised a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Monterrey, Mexico, which was later shown at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, Brazil.
Rego has 43 works in the collection of the British Council, 10 works in the collection of the Arts Council of England, 46 works in the Tate Gallery, London, and works in the British Government Art Collection, the British Museum, and the municipal collections of the cities of Bristol, Leicester, Rugby and Leeds in the United Kingdom, and the collections of the Sintra Museum of Modern Art, Portugal, the Chapel of the Palacio de Belém, Portugal, the Frissiras Museum, Greece, and the Yale Center for British Art, in the USA.
She has received honorary doctorates from Winchester School of Art, the University of East Anglia, Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Oxford, and in 2004 was awarded the Grã Cruz da Ordem de Sant'Iago da Espada by the President of Portugal. In 2009 a museum dedicated to Rego's work and named 'The House of Stories; Paula Rego' was opened in the Portuguese town of Cascais, and several key exhibitions of her work have since been staged here.
In 2010 she was made a Dame of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2010 and in the same year won the MAPFRE Foundation Drawing Prize in Madrid. In 2012 she will have retrospective exhibition of her work will be staged at the new Gulbenkian Museum in Paris
Rego is represented by Marlborough Fine Art, London.
 Style and Influences
Rego is a prolific painter and printmaker, and in earlier years was also a producer of collage work. Her most well known depictions of folk tales and images of young girls, made largely since 1990, seem bring together the methods of painting and printmaking with an emphasis on strong and clearly drawn forms, in contrast to Rego's earlier more lose style paintings.
Yet in her earliest works, such as Always at Your Excellency's Service, painted in 1961, Rego was strongly influenced by Surrealism, particularly the work of Juan Miro. This manifested itself not only in the type of imagery that appeared in these works but in the method Rego employed which was based on the Surrealist idea of automatic drawing, in which the artist attempts to disengage the conscious mind from the making process to allow the unconscious mind to direct the image making. At times these paintings almost verged on abstraction, but as proven by Salazar Vomiting the Homeland, painted in 1960, even when her work veered toward abstraction a strong narrative element remained in place, with Salazar being the right-wing dictator of Portugal in power at the time.
There are two principal causes for Rego adopting a semi-abstract style in the 1960s. The first is the simple dominance of abstraction in avant garde artistic circles at the time, which set figurative art on the defensive. But Rego was also reacting against her training at the Slade School, where a very strong emphasis had been placed on anatomical figure drawing. Under the encouragement of her fellow student and later husband Victor Willing, Rego kept a 'secret sketchbook', alongside her official school sketchbooks, whilst at the Slade, in which she made free form drawings of a type that would have been frowned upon by her tutors. This apparent dislike of crisp drawing techniques in the 1960s manifested itself not only in the style of works such as Faust and the Red Monkey series of the 1980s, which resemble expressionistic comic book drawing, but in her acknowledged influences at the time, which included Jean Dubuffet and Chaim Soutine.
A notable change of style emerged in 1990 following Rego's appointment to be the first 'Associate Artist' of the National Gallery, London, which was effectively an artist-in-residence scheme. Her brief was to ' work in whatever way she wished around works in the collection.' As the National Gallery is overwhelmingly an Old Master collection Rego seems to have been pulled back towards a much clearer, or tigher, linear style that is reminiscent of the highly wrought drawing technique she would have been taught at the Slade. The result of this was a series of works which came to characterise the popular perception of Rego's style, comprising strong clear drawing, with depictions of equally strong women in sometimes disturbing situations. Works like Crivelli's Garden have clear links to the paintings by Carlo Crivelli in the National Gallery, but other works made at the time, like Joseph's Dream and The Fitting, also draw spatially and in their subject matter from Old Master works by artists such as Diego Velázquez.
Having given up collage in the late 1970s, Rego began using pastels as a medium in the early 1990s, and continues to use this medium to this day, almost to the exclusion of oil paint. Amongst the most notable works made in pastel are those of her Dog Women series, in which women are shown sitting, squatting, scratching and generally behaving as if they are dogs. This antithesis of what is considered feminine behaviour, and many other works in which there appears to be either the threat of female violence or its actual manifestation, has associated Rego with feminism, and she has acknowledged reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, a key feminist text, at a young age and this making a deep impression on her. Her work also chimed with the interest of feminist writers on art such as Griselda Pollock in Freudian criticism in the 1990s, with works such as Girl Lifting up her Skirt to a Dog of 1986, and Two Girls and a Dog of 1987 appearing to have disturbing Freudian sexual undertones. However Rego has been known to slap down critics who read too much sexual connotation into her work.
Another explanation for Rego's depiction of women as unfeminine, animalistic or brutal beings is that this reflects the physical reality of a woman as a human being in the physical world, and not idealised types in the minds of men.