Dame Paula Rego introduces me into her North London home with a crooked smile and a plate of biscuits. She is possessed of a sinewy, jagged vitality that manifests itself in laughter and gesture; there is a pixie-like physicality to her person that belies her tininess. She is considerate in her answers and kind in her manner, but never without a sense of play and shade.
Rego’s works invite the viewer into a world characterised by the collision of innocence and experience, a magical space in which, as in Velazquez’s Las Meninas, much is hinted at but nothing explained. Drawing on an imagination shaped by the fairytales she has treasured since her childhood, the sinister is here rendered seductive, the grotesque beautiful.
Before moving to London to study at the Slade, Rego grew up under the autocratic regime of Antonio Oliveira Salazar in an unbendingly Catholic Portugal. Themes of oppression, authority and institutional violence towards women recur in her work. In 2000 she was moved by a referendum on abortion in Portugal to produce a series of prints depicting women in suffering after a backstreet operation. The series was credited with helping to shift public opinion.
Her disdain for hierarchy and tyranny extends to her appreciation of the arts; alongside Degas and Dubuffet in her pantheon of influences stand Walt Disney and the great Victorian illustrators. In her determination to play down her own status as an artist she betrays her own disdain for distinctions between high and low culture.
In her later work, Rego has worked with pastels on paper tacked to metal sheets, developing a technique of layered reapplication that brings an extraordinary depth to the medium. In addition to the figurative paintings for which she is most famous, she is also an accomplished drawer and printmaker.
Despite her own protestations, there is no doubt now that Paula Rego is among the great figurative artists of the post-war era. In 2009 a new museum dedicated to her work opened in Cascais, Portugal. It is called the House of Stories.
QThe White Review — Did you ever write stories when you were younger?
APaula Rego — I did write one or two, yes, as a matter of fact. I did.
QThe White Review — Why did you stop?
APaula Rego — Because I’d rather draw them! It’s quicker. When you write your story you know what it’s about — it’s normally about your father or something — but invention comes when you do a drawing. As you are drawing something, it very often turns into something else, and you can go with it. It develops in a completely different way, it’s organic and it’s done with the hand. The hand makes it change and so on. It’s much more interesting than having to think everything.
QThe White Review — Where do you start?
APaula Rego — You can punish anybody in a picture. In pictures you can punish anybody you don’t like. I didn’t like my teacher, I hated her, so I’d punish her in the drawing. If I did a story it would be too real, not right. In a drawing I could have her beaten up or something. That never stops. What you can do in pictures, that never stops. It goes on until now. I can punish people, or mock – mock – people I don’t like. Sometimes something happens whilst you’re doing the picture that, although you loathe the person you’re punishing, halfway through something happens and you begin to like them. Then there’s something perverse where you begin not to punish them but to praise them. It’s very extraordinary how your mind changes and you go with the picture, something in you comes out when you’re drawing. I did a picture called Salazar — our dictator for forty years, my father hated him. I did a picture called ‘Salazar Vomiting his Mother Country’.
I was doing this picture and suddenly I felt sorry for Salazar. Can you imagine? I mean it’s so perverse. I felt sorry for him. I didn’t change the picture, but the feelings changed. Anything can happen in pictures. That’s good isn’t it?
QThe White Review — Your work always arises out of this desire to punish someone?
APaula Rego — Well, mock. Which is the same. It could be somebody that you love, and then you don’t mock them, you love them. You can do all sorts of things really. I mean with my husband Vic — he died of multiple sclerosis — towards the end of his life I tried to do something and I did do something. It wasn’t in any way mocking, it wasn’t schmaltzy sorrow, it was just compassion.
I always know the people in my pictures. Very often they take the form of monkeys and bears and all sorts of things. It’s easier if you make them into animals because you can do things to animals that you can’t do to people because it’s too shocking. You can cut off a person’s tail — like in ‘Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey’s Tail’ — which is a form of revenge for her.
QThe White Review — But do you think it’s still very shocking?
APaula Rego — I don’t think so. He deserves it. He’s drunk too much, he’s vomiting wine. Everybody thinks it’s blood but I say it’s not blood it’s wine. That’s why I used animals, because I could do all kinds of nasty things and get away with it.
QThe White Review — What about using humans like animals, as in the Dog Woman series?
APaula Rego — The Dog Woman series (of pastels depicting women posturing and behaving like dogs) is about the love I had for my husband. It just happened. I first of all got this wonderful model called Lila Nunes. She looked after my husband when he was dying. She used to help him paint. Then she took up nursing. Then she could sit for me in her spare time. She still does. I worked with her yesterday.
She is really myself. I don’t like doing self-portraits but she’s like a self-portrait. The dog woman was her. I don’t know why, I just said to her: ‘Now crouch there, and growl’. And she did. And I did a very quick, very bad sketch. And I was going to put that in another picture. And I thought well it’s a shame to use it up, I don’t want to use all the ideas up in one picture. So she became the dog woman, the first dog woman, where she’s trapped, but she can bite. And then she’s sleeping on her owner’s coat, and then she’s being kicked out of bed because she’s pooed on the bed, and all sorts of disgusting things like that. They’re all personal stories, yes.
QThe White Review — What is it about Lila that brings her so close to you as a model?
APaula Rego — She looked after Vic. She was with me for quite a long time. She knows exactly what to do, she can read my mind. She knows what I want, and she does it. She just takes a position, and I go with it, it grows from there. She’s terribly important working with me. I like having her there with me.
QThe White Review — Your latest work at the Marlborough gallery comprised many group compositions drawn from the arrangement of dolls, props and models in the studio. How do you decide upon these arrangements? Do you, for instance, make lots of sketches?
APaula Rego — I used to make lots of sketches when I started. Pictures like ‘The Policeman’s Daughter’ – in which a young girl polishes a jackboot worn like a glove extending past her elbow – there were hundreds of sketches I did to find out the position. In the end, when my daughter came to sit for me I said, ‘Don’t just cuddle the boot, just shove your hand down into it, just shove it in.’ Because I’d seen a show by Robert Mapplethorpe, and there was this fist-fucking, and I thought, ‘Well that’s what she’s doing to the boot’. That came suddenly, suddenly.
But in order to do something like ‘The Oratory’ I took months, months of putting things in different places. It was just a mess, until I decided what it was — it was an oratory. My mother’s oratory was a little one. It has all shapes and sizes of figurines inside, it creates a mixture which is very energetic, and I liked that very much. I liked that it was holy and magic as well.
QThe White Review — Like a story?
APaula Rego — Yes
QThe White Review — Is it important that the folk tales you grew up with were always spoken, never written down?
APaula Rego — Yes. but you can’t keep them spoken, can you.
QThe White Review — But are they sanitised in being written down?
APaula Rego — The publishers sanitise them. Particularly the Americans, they make everything cute, it’s disgusting.
QThe White Review — What about Walt Disney? Could he not be accused of sanitising these tales?
APaula Rego — I love Disney. No he didn’t sanitise. His work is grotesque. There are many grotesque moments in Disney. Snow White, when she’s being caught by the branches of the trees when she’s running away. Pinocchio is pretty grotesque, when they all change into donkeys. I am a great fan of Disney. Now they do everything on computers, but before they drew everything.
QThe White Review — Your series of Dancing Ostriches (in which a group of ageing, stocky Portuguese ballerinas are captured in dance, in sleep and in conversation) is inspired by the famous scene in Fantasia. Can you tell us a little more about the genesis of these works? How did you move from the elegance of those animals to the rather mournful humour of these figures?
APaula Rego — Well my ostriches are older. They go to sleep, and they want a boyfriend. But they’re too old to get one. So, when they wake up they think there’s someone there to kiss them. So they put their lips like that (pouts) to see if something happens. But it doesn’t. So they’re rather sad. They’re not like Disney’s ostriches. They want to be loved, but it’s too late now.
QThe White Review — Like Snow White, waiting to be awoken with a kiss?
APaula Rego — Well, she’s got a chance, hasn’t she! The others have no chance!
QThe White Review — What is it about the grotesque that you find so attractive?
APaula Rego — The grotesque is beautiful.
QThe White Review — Is the grotesque sexy?
APaula Rego — The grotesque is quite sexy. I just like the grotesque. What’s the opposite of grotesque?
QThe White Review — Elegant?
APaula Rego — I like elegant too! If it looks like my mother dressed up to go to Lisbon then that’s elegant. But that’s also grotesque. Grotesque in the aspiration to be part of society.
QThe White Review — So many of the girls in your recent works are so delicately dressed in white – like brides or bridesmaids?
APaula Rego — Yes they are. Or first communion. Something like that is terribly important in our society. Of course it’s not important but there you go.
QThe White Review — Did you ever take holy communion?
APaula Rego — No, my father didn’t like it. I took religious instruction at the English school in Portugal. We had Irish priests, they were all very strict. But my father didn’t like me to go to those religious lessons. My mother liked it, but my father didn’t, because he was anti-Salazar. He believed it was half to blame for the dictatorship. I didn’t like the priests anyway.
QThe White Review — In much of your workthe adults seem complicit in the children’s corruption, encouraging, even forcing them to observe scenes of murder, rape or abuse?
APaula Rego — Well, children sometimes come across these things too, by chance. But I never came across anything too evil. The evil things were in my dreams, actually.
QThe White Review — When I was a child I used to go round with a pair of scissors trying to chop off my friends’ hands. Children have these impulses, but we repress them as we grow up.
APaula Rego — I didn’t. I cut off my dolls’ fingers, all of them. My parents bought me a very lovely doll from Paris. It was very soft, it was supposed to be like flesh. I got hold of some scissors and cut off all of its fingers. But children do that.
During the war we had lots of refugees arriving – they all came through Estoril to get away to America. And this couple came in a car. The woman had typhoid and was lying in the back, the little girl and the father driving. And they came to my parents’ house. And my mother said, ‘Now look this little girl, she has come all this way, you must play with her.’ I was an only child, I didn’t want to play with her. And this little girl, she was horrible. We were in the playroom and she came up to me with a pair of scissors and said, ‘And now I’m going to take out your eyes.’ She pushed me up against the door and, if somebody hadn’t come in, I bet you she’d have winkled them out. She must have seen something like that in Belgium or somewhere.
QThe White Review — Would you say children are always cruel?
APaula Rego — Yes.
QThe White Review — And then does everyone remain cruel?
APaula Rego — With time, no. Children are cruel, they have no other way. Either they cry and they give in, or they assert themselves. Lots of children are cruel. Then you grow up, and you’re much more vulnerable than when you are a child. You feel humiliation more. When you’re older, you feel humiliation and insecurity, which you don’t as a child so much.
QThe White Review — And yet that cruelty persists in your pictures…
APaula Rego — Really? I don’t find them very cruel. Maybe some — but that’s alright. What about those paintings by Tintoretto of the martyrdom of the saints, being torn to bits. They’re cruel, no?
QThe White Review — But there’s redemption in Tintoretto, these are martyrs’ deaths. The suffering here is in the cause of God, will be justified by a place in heaven. I don’t find any equivalent prospect of redemption in your work.
APaula Rego — There is redemption. There is redemption. In ‘The Family’, for instance: the man that they are trying to get out of bed, they are trying to resurrect him. The little girl by the window is a saintly, magic girl, but even she doesn’t manage to perform the miracle. So he dies. But there is redemption after he dies. There’s a little oratory with two little figures in it. There’s always redemption, but it doesn’t show in the picture.
They’re not like English pictures very much are they? The only English painter I ever got along well with at school, at the Slade, was Lowry. He was wonderful to me, so kind.
QThe White Review — I’m surprised he was invited to the Slade, he would have been very unfashionable, no?
APaula Rego — Very. He was considered real kitsch. But he isn’t real kitsch. He’s a very interesting artist. If you see his little erotic drawings, you realise what he was up to. He did these little drawings – I saw in pencil – of these dollies with their waists pulled tight in, lips like an O and a big bow on their heads. And they were obviously sex dolls. He has lots of these little drawings. They were never shown, they were taken out. I saw one once in Manchester, and I thought I’d like to curate a show of his, but I never found the time.
Anyway, Lowry came in, I had a tutorial with him, and he said, ‘I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do this’, and then he wanted to buy a picture of mine. It didn’t quite come to it, but he was always a friend, and he understood, he just understood.
QThe White Review — And he was the only one who understood?
APaula Rego — I had a terrible ticking off from Victor Pasmore because he had just turned abstract. He was doing these squiggles. He looked my work and said, ‘Nobody does things like that any more. That is total rubbish.’ And so I didn’t like him obviously.
QThe White Review — Did he encourage you to paint abstractions?
APaula Rego — No, that was art critic Tim Hilton. He’d done a wonderful show with Gerald Wilde in Oxford, who did very expressionistic pictures. And I saw this and I thought, ‘I love this, maybe this one will like my pictures.’ Well, was I wrong! He came to my studio and he looked at my stuff and he said, ‘This is a load of junk. Why do you say you need a story?You don’t need a story, you don’t need a story for anything.’ I said, ‘Well what am I going to do then if I don’t have a story? What am I going to paint?’ ‘You paint a picture. You know what a picture is,’ he said. ‘You get a long canvas and you get five colours. You get one brush and you dip it and you drive it across the canvas from the left hand side and then you get another colour and you drive it across the canvas from the right hand side and when you’ve got the canvas full of lines of paint that’s a picture.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, is it?’ And I went to Portugal and I tried it. Of course, it wasn’t anything. It wasn’t a picture at all. It wasn’t about anything. He was wrong.
QThe White Review — You should have put him in a picture to punish him.
APaula Rego — I didn’t punish him actually, I couldn’t even get up enough courage to do it. I was so humiliated.
QThe White Review — Why did you move away from the collage technique?
APaula Rego — I was doing everything in collage because I thought I was doing art. And if you’re doing art it’s obscene. You should never do art, it’s obscene. You should do a picture, a story about something. But my working in collage initially had a lot to do with the texture, and then it became art. It’s wrong. Doing art is wrong.
Anyway, I was beginning a picture and I’d drawn a whole sheet of monkeys and I was going to cut them up and put them in different places so that it would make a story. And my friend Juan, who is completely different from me — he’d been a dancer with Pina Bausch and came to art school afterwards and we became good friends — he came to my studio and I was cutting up these monkeys and he said to me, ‘Why are you cutting up these monkeys? They’re so nice as they are, just leave them be.’ And I said, ‘Do you think I could?’ And it was such a relief, because I didn’t have to do art! So I did it, and my whole work changed.
QThe White Review — How did you come to pastels? What precipitated that change?
APaula Rego — It was quick. I did make a pastel before, about a young servant holding his mistress’s head while she’s vomiting but that’s disappeared. Then I did Dog Woman. I could get what I wanted better than in paint. I didn’t have the wobbly brush, you see, because what I really like to do is draw. I’m not a painter really, I’m a drawer. I draw a lot. I don’t like it when you paint and the brush bends. When you draw you can push your pencil or your pastel — everything is much more violent. painting is much more lyrical.That’s why I took up pastel and haven’t given it up, though I use Conté now. And I draw.
I was inspired by a show at the Whitechapel gallery by Pierre Klossowski, Balthus’s brother. Now he was a novelist as well, and he did these drawings, erotic drawings that are not at all erotic. Rather awkwardly done — he was a surrealist — very awkwardly done, and the whole of the Whitechapel was full of these pencil drawings. Black and white, with just a little bit of colour. I knew his pictures from books but I suddenly thought I was in the middle of angels, that the whole room was full of angels, it was so beautiful. They were supposed to be erotic but they didn’t seem to me erotic – it was the line. He is much better than Balthus. So I went home and I started doing just drawings.
QThe White Review — You said you use Conté now; how do you work?
APaula Rego — I have an easel, paper stuck on a board or even canvas. I draw from the model directly now, I don’t have to square it up as I used to. I never mix the colour. I have several layers, with a lot of very good acrylic-based fixative. I underpaint the flesh in tones of green, like they used to do with oil painting, tones of green, light and dark. And then I fix it and I paint on top with pink and peach so that there are two layers that the colour comes through, so you get shadows and so on. And then, I get a little Conté pencil and I comb it all together, I brush it together and draw it. And then again; and then again; it’s all layers, I never ever rub.
QThe White Review — How many layers would you work through?
APaula Rego — If I tell you no one will buy them any more because they’ll think the layers are going to fall off!
QThe White Review — How do you find the process of etching compares to the physicality of pastels? Is etching not a much more delicate process? Do you still feel it’s physical?
APaula Rego — It’s very physical. I love etching. I find it very liberating. I used to do etching at the Slade. And I turned to etching when I’d done a lot of big pictures as a relief.
QThe White Review — Did you turn to etching at the Slade because it wasn’t considered ‘Art’?
APaula Rego — Yes.
QThe White Review — When you say this ‘Art’ with a capital A is obscene, what do you mean by that?
APaula Rego — I think you should go with the drawings that you do. The drawings that you do as a child are the drawings that come from you. And then as you grow up, the drawings grow up too. But that’s not ‘Art’, so to speak, it’s the drawings that come from you.