Paula Rego, whose art captured the “beautiful grotesque”, died at the age of 87

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Drawing on myths, folk tales and her own upbringing under the Portuguese dictatorship, artist Paula Rego makes paintings and drawings that are mischievous, threatening and psychologically complex. They had, she said, a sense of the “beautiful grotesque” and explored issues of women’s freedom and identity through their disturbing images of Disney-like animals and monumental women.

For her series “Women Dogs” in the 1990s, she showed lonely women posing like animals – squatting, lying down, howling on all fours. The photos were full of violence and eroticism, as well as other works in which she shows a woman cutting off a monkey’s tail with huge scissors, an “angel” with a sponge in one hand and a sword in the other, and a young woman polishing a police shoe. to her father’s knee.

As Ms. Rego said, art is a way to overcome fear and trauma, to calm and comfort, as well as to erase, attack, scratch and destroy. “I could do anything in my photos,” she said in the 2017 documentary Paula Rego: Secrets & Stories, directed by her son Nick Wheeling. “Work is the most important thing in life – it’s for me.”

Ms Rego was 87 when she died on June 8 at her home in north London, not far from the converted stretcher factory she used as a studio. Victoria Miro Gallery, which represents her, announced her death, but did not give a specific reason.

Although she grew up on the Portuguese coast, Ms. Rego has spent much of her career in the UK, where she has become known as one of the most famous and inventive artists in the country. Queen Elizabeth II named her Lady Commander, one of the country’s highest honors, in 2010, and Tate Britain organized an extensive retrospective of her work last year.

“An uncompromising artist with extraordinary imagination, she revolutionized the way women are represented,” the museum said at the time. Some of her works are on display at the Venice Biennale, one of the most significant events in the art world.

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For years, however, Ms. Rego was largely neglected, starting her career in the 1950s as a figurative artist at a time when abstraction was in vogue. She was a rare woman on the London stage – she didn’t worry about men, she said, “because you can seduce them if you want” – and she felt disconnected from existing art movements. Her first solo exhibition in Lisbon in 1965 shocked some critics with her colorful paintings and collages, which combined newspaper and magazine clippings with her own semi-abstract drawings.

“My inspiration,” she told an interviewer at the time, “comes from things that have little to do with painting: cartoons, daily news, things that happen on the streets, sayings, children’s stories, children’s games, children’s songs and dances.” , nightmares, desires, fears. “

Many of her works are inspired by literature or children’s poems, transforming literary or folklore characters such as The Three Bats, Jane Eyre and Snow White. Animals were often mistaken for humans, as in her painting “The Pregnant Rabbit Tells Her Parents,” which shows a bunny delivering unexpected news to his mother, cat and father, a dog who smokes cigars.

Other works are more explicitly political, informed from her childhood by the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, whom she portrays in paintings such as Salazar vomits the homeland (1960) and The Impostor (1964), which portray him as an octopus.

Ms. Rego tackled feminist issues, including female genital mutilation and abortion rights, which inspired some of her most famous works, a series of pastel drawings depicting painful but challenging young women just before or after the procedure. One woman was depicted with her feet on folding chairs that served as makeshift stirrups; others were shown curled up in bed or lying on the floor.

The abortion series began as a form of protest following the failure of a 1998 referendum that would decriminalize the procedure in Portugal. It was also informed by personal experience: as a teenager, Ms Rego had an abortion in the backyard so that she could continue her art studies in London instead of being forced to return to her parents in Portugal.

She said she wanted her work to reveal “the fear, pain and danger of illegal abortion that desperate women have always resorted to.”

When another abortion vote took place in Portugal in 2007, many of her photos were published in national newspapers, which helped shape the debate over access to the procedure. The referendum passed, legalizing abortion in the country, and former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio went on to cite “the very brutal brutality of her photos” as “influencing the outcome”.

Maria Paula Figueiroa Rego was born in Lisbon on January 26, 1935. The following year, her parents moved to England to work for her father as an electrical engineer. Mrs. Rego was sent to her grandmother, who lived in the fishing town of Ericeira, and introduced the young girl to Portuguese folklore.

The stories became a kind of balm, a source of comfort in childhood, shaped by fear and isolation. “My mother tells me I was afraid of flies, but I remember being afraid of everything,” Ms. Rego told biographer John McEwan. “I was even afraid of other children. I just couldn’t stand being taken out. God, it was awful. It was just horror, horror. “

Art – “the pencil that scribbles on paper and does something” – also offers an escape. Ms. Rego was encouraged by a teacher at a British international school she attended near Lisbon and continued her graduating school in England before enrolling in 1952 at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London.

It was there that she met the artist Victor Wheeling, a brilliant fellow student who became famous for his naked research. He was married at the time, but an affair began, and after his divorce they married in 1959, deepening a tumultuous relationship that included infidelity on both sides.

At the time, women were there to be partners and supporters of their artist husbands. I was not one of them, “she told the BBC last year. “I wanted to be in the big boys’ club, with the great artists I admired. Just like I wanted to be Robin Hood, not Marianne’s maid.

Ms Rego and her husband split their time between Britain and Portugal before settling permanently in London in the mid-1970s. Over the next decade, she and her work began to gain a wide audience in the UK, where AIR Gallery hosted its first major solo exhibition in London and was named an associate artist at the National Gallery, adding some of her work to her permanent collection.

Much of this time was spent caring for her husband, who has multiple sclerosis and died in 1988. That same year, Ms. Rego painted The Family, a tender, albeit somewhat disturbing, picture of a woman and her daughters they take care of her frail husband by helping him with his clothes while sitting motionless in bed.

In addition to her son Nick, the survivors include two daughters, Cass and Victoria Wheeling, as well as a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Ms. Rego has remained productive in recent years and often describes art as a form of therapy, a way to “give a face to fear”, as she put it in an interview with the Telegraph in 2016. She has had mixed success (it’s ridiculous to be so old and so scary ”), but said he still calms down by turning to stories, whether in the form of childhood memories or folk tales and legends.

“I choose history,” she added, “so I can use it to paint my own life.”

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