Paula Rego can feel confident that she is ‘amongst the grown ups’ (something she always craved) with a spectacular retrospective at Tate Britain. Concerned that, as woman, her art won’t be taken as seriously as male artists, this show is a huge moment of recognition for one of the world’s leading contemporary artists and provides a fascinating perspective on her upbringing, the political state she escaped in her native Portugal and her dark, narrative-driven work which illuminates injustice towards women.

Self portrait in red 1966, Paula Rego

‘It’s all about the story,’ says Paula Rego of her work. And it’s certainly true that her paintings are loaded with symbolism, imagery, a great cascade of consciousness and dreamlike elements that suggest a great number of stories. Her works are generally quite demanding, challenging the viewer to look at painful or difficult subjects. We are not given answers in the way that narrative or genre paintings of the 18th or 19th century tried to illustrate a situation; with Paula Rego’s works we are presented with emotions, issued and, very often, dark, abusive situations involving women who are threatened or who look about to wreak a terrible vengeance on their abuser.

Turkish Bath, collage with oil paint, paper and ink on canvas, 1960

I really enjoyed this new show at Tate Britain. It’s particularly fascinating to see so many of her early collages (an artist after my own heart!) and her imaginative use of fragments of drawings, newspaper clippings, photos snipped from magazines and photos all mixed up with paint, ink and gouache.

‘When we had a house in the country we’d throw marvellous parties and then we’d go out and shoot black people.’ 1961 Oil paint, graphite and paper on canvas

Her early work has a very surreal feel to it, often filled with uncomfortable subjects and uneasy images. As her work evolved she started using models in the studio along with props, often curious puppet-like creatures who interact with the live models.

Sea Nymph, 1978, Fabric, wool, plastic and kapok

These works often referenced the political situation in Portugal (which she escaped aged 16 when her parents sent her to London to study art), her own relationship with Victor Willing, a fellow student whom she married and the agonies of infidelity, illness and frustration. The Dance, below, was completed after her husband’s death and features him dancing with Paula and with a blonde lover.

The Dance, 1988, Acrylic paint on paper on canvas.
The Artist in her Studio, 1993, acrylic paint on canvas

This fabulous show is on at Tate Britain until 24 October 2021.

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