The Times September 19, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

The acclaimed artist has been inspired by her country’s rich oral tradition. Now she is determined to keep that heritage alive

Paula Rego is talking about her love of pornography, particularly as penned by Henry Miller: “When I discovered it, I found it really quite wonderful and thought, ‘Gosh, look at that!’ ” Her sooty eyes gleam. “I used to read a lot of it and I just found it, you know . . . naughty.”

Her discovery came when she was renting a studio in Dean Street, Soho, Central London, from a woman: “Not a tart, a lovely girl.” Are you saying that tarts can’t also be lovely girls, I tease her. “No, no, no, no, but she wasn’t a tart and this was in 1959, my dear, long before you were born. [I wish.] One day I looked up and saw this book and took it down and read it and I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake! I’ve never read anything like that in my life’.”

Rego’s thoughts take off like startled birds. Her responses are unpredictable, and she can be tricky to pin down. Her art is a form of storytelling, often ambiguous and mysterious, hinting at sinister emotional or political complications. In her earlier work, particularly, you feel that something unspeakable is about to happen or has just occurred, challenging you to guess the narrative; it’s like a hard-core Vermeer.

One of the more interesting difficulties is that Rego’s interpretation of her own work is markedly different from the way most of us view it. This has been acutely observed by Marco Livingstone in an essay that the artist (as she never calls herself) pressed on me when we parted. The text was commissioned for the catalogue of a new museum devoted to Paula Rego, the Casa das Histórias, which is opening this month in Cascais, in her native Portugal.

“ ‘Darkness? What darkness?’ Rego seems genuinely perplexed whenever she hears comments about her art being disturbing or conveying a harsh or bleak view of human suffering and cruelty,” Livingstone writes. “For her it is clearly simply a case of showing life as it is . . . ”

Ask her about a certain sadomasochistic thread (as I see it) in her work, and Rego is nonplussed. The Policeman’s Daughter, for instance, with the grim-faced daughter’s arm plunged into the black leather boot as she polishes it, suggests repression but also an atmosphere that makes you think she will find a way of getting her own back somehow.

The Family, a year later, in 1988 (the year her husband, Victor Willing, died, after a long decline from multiple sclerosis), depicts a suited man with frightened eyes, rigid on a bed, being undressed by a smiling woman, a young girl pressed up hard against his groin, another young girl by the window, her hands clasped in a prayer, which could also be a strange sort of excitement. There is a sense of complicity between the women that is not altogether benevolent. “That’s not sadomasochistic. They are trying to raise him from the dead,” Rego says. “I was going to call that Lazarus.”

She continues: “First of all, I don’t get a kick out of sadomasochism and I never thought of my pictures as sadomasochistic. I mean, there are very nasty things that happen and tender things that happen. So there is brutality and there is tenderness, there is cruelty and there is tolerance and kindness. There is everything. Most of the things I do are based on Portuguese folk tales, which are not folksy. They were jotted down by anthropologists, at the turn of the century, who would go into the villages and the mountains and take down these stories which are brutal and magic as well. And it is those stories that I have adored and revered all my life. That’s why this museum I am opening in Portugal is called the House of the Stories.”

When I arrive at the Kentish Town studio she has occupied since 1993 — a former North London woodworking business, with its bafflingly inconspicuous doorway and 3,000sq ft divided into two spaces, one for drawing, one for painting — Rego is a model host, offering coffee and apple pie. She is famously mad about clothes, something she inherited from her late mother, and is wearing a fabulous jacket, made out of different slashes of patterned fabric, by the Belgian designer Dries van Noten.

Her hair is sticking up in tousled clumps, which gave her the look of a charming, if slightly wayward, sprite. She wears her make-up in a smoky smudge above and below her eyes, which she closes, for longish periods, or looks at you from under hooded lids. Sometimes, alarmingly, she will bare her jumbled teeth, in a sudden, simian snarl and break into high-pitched laughter, although it’s not quite clear why.

At the end of the hangar-like room we are sitting in is a sort of altarpiece for the Foundling Museum, with a series of stuffed figures in brown uniforms depicting scenes conjured by Rego: the abandoned children in Thomas Coram’s famous school, and the events that led up to their births. “So on the top left-hand side is a rape. Below, on the left, she’s having a baby in the moonlight. Over there, they are throwing babies down into the well. I had a well built, you see. I compose and build these things, and then I draw them. The one on the far right is throwing the baby out of the window. It’s a bit like Michael Jackson but it was before he died, so it doesn’t count.”

On various tables, every surface is covered with curious objects: a bright orange cat, dusty artificial flowers, a frightening pagan-looking doll with a grotesque phallic nose. An anatomical dummy, in tails, is splayed over a sofa and Rego zestfully unzips the fly to show me how “he” can be converted into a “she”. There are rails of clothes, including dresses that belonged to her mother and grandmother, and stacks of plastic drawers crammed full of underwear and stockings.

In the room next door Rego has created another scene; of a classroom, this time, a couple of children fighting on the floor and a desk with the seated figure’s back to us. This is a hated teacher from her own childhood, the artist explains, but the pupil has wreaked her revenge. We walk around the tableau to confront the teacher and find that her “face” is a hideous skull. On the walls are etchings — Rego’s preferred medium — some from her series on female genital mutilation. As we stand in front of one of an African girl, her poignant face shrouded in a white bride’s veil, a boat of star-scattered fabric in front of her, Rego says sadly: “You see, she is carrying the sky in her lap.”

The combination of storytelling — often around women’s bonds and bondage within the family— and the directness of her political comment is more suggestive of a literary tradition, such as the magic realism of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Rego’s abortion pictures — her response to Portugal’s 1997 referendum on the legalisation of abortion — are among her toughest and most confronting to date. (The poll attracted only a 10 per cent turn-out and the vote went against; the decision was overturned only two years ago.) Her art has also been informed by her revolt against the twin oppressions of the Church — “the horrible Catholic Church”, as she puts it — and her memories of the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.

Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, three years after Salazar came to power, where he remained until 1968. When Rego was 16 she was sent to complete her education at an English finishing school in Sevenoaks, Kent. Her mother was appalled when she next saw her daughter. “ ‘What is this?’ she said, when I arrived at the station. ‘You look revolting!’ Quite right, I did,” Rego recalls. “I’d eat all the remains of people’s food from their plates. So she took me to Paris and forced me to eat only meat and no potatoes, and by the time Mum and Dad got back to Portugal I had lost the weight.”

Rego is a manic-depressive and there is mental illness on both sides of her family. Fortunately, none of her three grown-up children — Caroline (married to the sculptor Ron Mueck), Victoria and Nicholas — seems to have inherited the depressive gene. Her father, who was her favourite parent, would withdraw for long periods in silence. When her parents were away on business, the young Rego — an only child — spent alternate weeks, blissfully, with her beloved grandparents, and less blissfully with her mother’s aunt, who was catatonically depressed, barely stirring from her chair.

When I ask her whether her mother also suffered from depression, she roars: “Good God, no!” And then: “She loved shoes.” That’s quite an eccentric non sequitur. “Well, she did love shoes,” Rego says. “In the end we had to put her in a home with nurses. They used to dress her and she always complained when they put brown shoes with black clothes.”

The first psychiatrist Rego saw was Anthony Storr — also an eminent author — who suffered from depression himself. “He was very good and saw me for a while. But then he said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I’m writing and I don’t have time’, so he sent me to somebody else, who I saw every week since 1973 until about five years ago, when he retired.” I wonder whether she thinks she may have suffered from some form of post-natal depression, as it was possibly years before her depression was recognised and treated. “Oh, good God, no. Having children is nothing. You open your legs and out they come.” And then, marvellously: “I mean, while I was having my daughter, I read Simone de Beauvoir all the way through it.”

She hates the word “creative”. “I’m not a literary person so I can’t explain to you why I don’t like the word. But doing art is disgusting, don’t you see? And creative is something to do with doing art.” You’ve lost me. Why is “doing art” disgusting? “I think it is.” But you’re an artist; that’s what you do! “Yairssss, that’s what I do. But really I do drawing. I like drawing best of all, like when you’re small and . . .” She starts humming as she used to do, a solitary child, sketching away for hours in her playroom.

When we were talking about Rego’s love of pornography — or erotica, more accurately — I asked her whether her discovery had made an impact on her relationship with Willing. (She said, rather primly, not.) When she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, he was already in his third year, although seven years her senior, and newly married. I had also asked her what she remembered most clearly about her time with him, and her reply was a succinct: “Bed.” Oh, was he good in that department? “ ‘Take off your knickers’ was the first thing he said to me.” That’s — ah — an interesting line. “Yes.” So did you? “I obeyed exactly. It was at a Slade party, and I was a virgin.” Crikey. “I know. It was very dramatic and dirty. There was blood everywhere,” she says through a fit of giggles.

Rego became pregnant while Willing was still with his wife — a ballet dancer and childhood sweetheart — and he married Rego in 1959, the year that their second daughter, Victoria, was born. The anxiety of returning pregnant and umarried to Portugal to deliver the news can be divined, decades later, in the rabbit paintings of 1982 — Pregnant Rabbit Telling her Parents and Rabbit and Weeping Cabbage. When Rego explained to her mother that the cabbage represented her, her mother apparently responded happily: “Why, you’ve made me look so young.”

There seem to have been some idyllic years — certainly in the photos from that time the handsome couple positively glow — when the Willings lived with their small children in Rego’s family rural retreat in Ericeira, although Victor Willing was more involved in helping to support his father-in-law’s ailing business than creating (dread word) his own art. But in 1966, when multiple sclerosis was first diagnosed, the struggles began, ending in his death in 1988.

Rego has a long-term companion — Anthony Rudolf, a writer and publisher — who is also one of her models: “He loves sitting; he’s very good.” His name comes up when we are talking about the dangers of love, and she says that their relationship is not like that. “We’re terribly good friends, which is much healthier than being in love. I don’t recommend being in love to anybody.” Why? “It’s much better to have a very good friend who takes you to the theatre. I don’t think being in love is a particularly nice thing.”

She clearly adored her husband. “He was immensely intellectual, he liked talking about philosophers and French poets and that. He was a bloody dish and I think that intellectuals, on the whole, are dishy. He was a dominant person but he also had a kind of delicate, feminine quality. Men were in love with him as well. He was incredibly charming. He really was.”

But Rego can also see that her love was “a form of worship, that came from a long way back, OK? [When he, unlike her, was the rising star in the art world.] I was a mere nothing with him, do you understand? So when he was diagnosed, we didn’t know what the hell it meant. And then it got worse and worse and I thought, ‘I don’t like this at all’. It was horrible and then your life becomes very restricted. But I was always lucky because I had Portuguese au pairs and things like that to help.”

Rego cannot say that she regrets having fallen in love but, anyhow, she doesn’t believe she had any choice in the matter. It was a coup de foudre; an irresistible force. “I did love him — very, very much — and I wouldn’t have known any other way to be because that’s how I was then. I was very young and I admired him enormously. But if you’re young and you fall in love madly, you lose a sense of yourself, as well. And it’s not terribly good for the work. But, yeah, well, it’s life, isn’t it? Life is that.”

We’ve talked for a long time; the photographer has arrived, and EastEnders beckons, one of Rego’s last addictions, now that a heart condition has restricted her alcohol consumption to a daily dose of two flutes of champagne. I check her age before I leave, and get it wrong by a year — “75!” she gasps, as though I’ve mugged her. “Four!” (I’m worried that I’ve hastened her departure) “74!” I’m all for accuracy but does the extra year really bother you so much, at this stage, I ask, intrigued. “Every hour matters, my dear. Every hour.”

Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Cascais, Portugal, opened yesterday; www.casadashistoriaspaularego.com

SMALL TALK

On appearances I do my best to look my best. I think that’s terribly important. When you come out of the hairdressers, you do feel better. I like dressing up and going shopping, and I like it very, very much.

On fascism Having been brought up in a Fascist country, you are naturally aware of the injustices and the poverty. Of course, my father kept me well informed as to what went on. So I was politically aware and furious at times. Most of my pictures are political.

On being Victor Willing’s model There’s a wonderful nude of me that disappeared in Belgium — somebody must have bought it, and it’s fabulous. But, you know, Vic was married.

On psychiatry What I wanted was a buzz so that I could get new ideas for pictures.

On Tracey Emin I gave her a tutorial once and it was a disaster. I think we talked about men a lot of the time. So she says.

BIOGRAPHY

Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935 to Maria, who had studied painting, and José, a wealthy electrical engineer. It was a privileged household, but the family moved to the seaside town of Estoril when Rego was 3 after incipient tuberculosis was diagnosed.

Art and love Her talents developed at an Anglican English school in Portugal. At the Slade in London, where she won prizes, she fell in love with the painter Victor Willing. At 20 she became pregnant with his child and returned to Portugal. He later left his wife to marry her.

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