Paula Rego, painter, sculptor and feminist force, died at her home in north London today, June 8. She was 87 years old.
The Luso-British artist had suffered from a brief illness, according to Victoria Miro, his gallery since 2020. (Rego is also represented by London’s Cristea Roberts Gallery for his prints.)
“Paula was a fearless artist who painted life and the world head on – a remarkable, dazzling and powerful force for good and for change. I am proud that the gallery has been able to celebrate and promote her work over the past few years of his life,” Victoria Miro told Artnet News in an email. “We have lost a very great artist.”
An innovative visual storyteller, Rego is known for the dark, fairytale quality of her figurative work, which is often steeped in political themes. She was also a recognized activist, defending women‘s rights and reproductive freedom.
Rego, who started drawing at just four years old, had a 60-year career. But, as is often the case with older female artists, she had her breakout moment late in life. She had a star at this year’s Venice Biennale, which matched an exhibition at Miro’s outpost in Venice (until June 18).
During the biennale’s main exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams” (through November 27), Artnet News critic Ben Davis discovered that a dark room entirely dedicated to Rego’s paintings and sculptures was one of the “spectacular moments of the event”.
“I am extremely saddened by the passing of extraordinary artist Paula Rego,” Venice Biennale curator Cecilia Alemani told Artnet News in an email. “Throughout her life, Rego worked tirelessly and uncompromisingly on very complex issues like freedom of speech, women’s rights, abortion rights, constantly condemning conservative and reactionary politics.”
She added: “Her contribution goes far beyond the world of art: she was a role model for a whole generation of women who looked up to her as an example of a fearless artist, never afraid to defend his convictions.”
Born in 1935, Rego grew up under the fascist dictatorship of former Portuguese President António de Oliveira Salazar, instilling in her a spirit of rebellion against censorship that inspired much of her adult work.
She moved to the UK in 1951 and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London the following year. Rego’s professional career began in 1962, when she exhibited with the London Group alongside David Hockney and Frank Auerbach.
She had three children with Victor Willing, a British artist whom she met while studying at Slade, as well as multiple abortions, which she has spoken about openly. The couple married in 1959 and remained together until Willing’s death in 1988.
Rego’s first solo exhibition was in 1965 at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes in Lisbon, and she represented Portugal at the São Paulo Art Biennial in 1969.
But recognition has been slower in coming to the UK. Rego’s first solo exhibition in London did not take place until 1981, at the AIR gallery, which has since closed. His first retrospective opened at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1988.
“I felt frustrated and broke,” Rego told Tracey Emin in the book Paula Rego: The Forgotten, published this year by Victoria Miro on the occasion of the artist’s first exhibition at the gallery. “It was a huge relief every time I sold a picture.”
More recently, however, Rego has had a string of major solo shows. From 2019 to 2020, a traveling exhibition appeared at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; and MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, England. In 2018, she exhibited at the Musée de L’Orangerie, Paris, and at La Virreina Centro de la Imagen, Barcelona.
The largest ever retrospective dedicated to Rego opened last June at Tate Britain in London and traveled to Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands. It is currently on view at the Museo Picasso Málaga until August 21. A separate solo exhibition at the Arnolfini in Bristol, ‘Subversive Stories’, closed last month.
“Paula Rego was one of the most original and acclaimed artists of our time. For seven decades she reinvented figurative painting and the way women are depicted,” a representative from Museo Picasso Málaga said in an email to Artnet News. “Rego sought new and different ways to tell stories with his images, and his works are rooted in his personal experience, while connecting with what is happening in the world.”
Influenced by mythology, folk tales, literature, politics and art history, Rego has also drawn on her own personal biography to create psychologically compelling works of art that speak to essential truths about human relations.
Many of her works were powerful illustrations of the female experience, of female resolve in the face of suffering and adversity, often depicting her longtime friend and role model Lila Nunes.
“I paint the women I know. I paint what I see. I make women the protagonists because I am one,” Rego told the Guardian in 2021.
She started her “Abortion” series in 1998, after a failed referendum to legalize abortion in Portugal. The paintings show women recovering from illegal abortions.
“It highlights the fear, pain and danger of illegal abortion, which desperate women have always resorted to,” Rego told the Guardian in 2019. “Making abortions illegal forces women into the underground solution.”
The works were later used to promote a second abortion referendum in 2007, which was successful.
“The series was born out of my outrage,” Rego said in a 2002 interview. aprons, baking cakes like good housewives.
Among her accolades, Rego was named the National Gallery of London’s first Artist in Residence in 1990 and was named a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010. In 2004, the President of Portugal awarded her the Grã-Cruz da Ordem de Sant’Iago da Espada.
In her native Portugal, the government built a museum dedicated to her work, the Paula Rego House of Stories, in 2009. Located outside Lisbon, in the town of Cascais, the museum was designed by the architect Eduardo Souto de Moura and houses a collection of 200 Rego prints, as well as loans of drawings, paintings and preparatory works by the artist.
“Portuguese culture has lost one of its most important and irreverent creators, someone who distinguished himself as a woman, a human being and an artist,” Cascais Mayor Carlos Carreiras told Reuters. .
Rego is survived by his three children, Cas, Victoria and Nick Willing, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Nick is a filmmaker who made an award-winning BBC documentary in 2018, secrets and storiesabout his life and career.
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