Anglo-Portuguese artist Paula Rego (born 1935), Dame of the British Empire, Royal Academician, holder of six honorary degrees, with a museum devoted to her work in her native country, is one of today’s most important figurative artists. Not bad for someone who arrived in Britain as a refugee at 16, packed off by her liberal parents to escape the brutish regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, which lasted until 1974, the ageing dictator being finally defeated by, of all things, a collapsing deckchair.
Rego always knew she wanted to be an artist, and the first three rooms here chart her early career from study at the Slade to establishment on the London art scene. She began with Dadaesque collages before moving on to bold, multifigure acrylics such as ‘The Vivian Girls as Windmills’, 1984 (below). Inspired by the work of the American outsider artist Henry Darger, the painting reminds me a lot of the quirky, cartoon-like canvases that Rose Wylie RA – who is a year older than Rego – still produces today. By the early 1980s, though, Rego had developed her signature format, the large oil pastels for which she’s best known.
The other defining characteristic of Rego’s work, of course, is the political dimension, and in particular her concern with women’s rights, which is what Tate really dwells on. You’ll get the idea from the choice of room titles: ‘Coercion and Defiance’, ‘Possession’, ‘The Pain of Others’, etc. Salazar’s Portugal and the artist’s own turbulent marriage to fellow painter Vic Willing (who died in 1988) provide abundant source material. There’s an unsettling, yet intriguing, air of menace in paintings like ‘The Policeman’s Daughter’, 1987 (top), or the ‘Dog Woman’ series, 1994. Her art has made made a difference, too: the ‘Abortion Series’, 1997-98, for example, is thought to have had a direct impact on the liberalisation of the laws in Portugal in 2007. Because of works like these, and the fierce advocacy of critics such as Ruth Rosengarten and Marina Warner, Rego nowadays is up there with feminist art icons like Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo.
All of this is important and salutary; so why did my attention start to wander towards the end of this big, eleven-room show? Honestly, because of the medium, not the message. Rego is a great storyteller but she’s only got one scale – huge, one lighting system – harsh, and one figure type – chunky. Comparisons with Lucian Freud (or Balthus for that matter) would be invidious, but even so. Going round the later rooms, I began to get nostalgic about those early Rose Wylie-type paintings. Contrast her near-contemporary David Hockney, an artist Rego greatly admires, who seems to turn new visual tricks as often as he changes his socks. Hockney is sometimes dismissed as an artistic lightweight, but as Gainsborough said of Reynolds, ‘damn him, how various he is!’ There’s rather more diversity in her graphic work, which I actually prefer to the bigger productions, but, strangely, there isn’t very much of that in this exhibition.
Here’s another odd thing about the Tate show: it says it’s ‘the UK’s largest and most comprehensive retrospective’ of Rego’s work, so where’s all the recent stuff? There was nothing later than 2009 that I could see. What happened to the intervening decade? I read somewhere that sculpture has become an increasingly important part of her practice, but you won’t see any of it at Millbank. And what’s she been up to during lockdown, I wonder? Look on any artist’s Instagram page and they can’t wait to show you what busy bees they’ve been since the start of the pandemic. Artists keep going, they never stop, least of all artists like Paula Rego.
Paula Rego at Tate Britain, until 24 October 2021