Paula Rego born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1935, trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. From 1959 to 1975, she and her husband, the English artist Victor Willing (1928-88), and their three children divided their time between London and Portugal.
In 1965, she achieved overnight success in Portugal with a somewhat controversial solo exhibition. Her earliest works were semi-abstract paintings which often featured elements of collage that she took from her own drawings.
In 1976, she returned to London and a few years later, she abandoned collage and began using acrylic to draw directly on to paper. Unlike most contemporary artists, Rego works in a strongly narrative style, telling stories that she said developed out of the folk tales her great-aunt used to tell her as a child.
Stories also became particularly central to her art at a time when she had little to do and Willing suggested she should try illustrating something. Using an essentially graphic style reminiscent paintings – which have illustrated Jane Eyre (1847), Peter Pan (1911), The Return of the Native (1878) and stories – are often bizarre and represent violent or political themes, or cruelty, fear, revenge and power between the sexes.
Many are metaphorical with surreal elements, and all reveal her caustic wit and vibrant energy in a bold, strong style.As well as literature and fairy tales, Rego has illustrated myths, cartoons and religious texts, frequently drawing on her childhood memories and Portuguese roots, while also suffusing them with a mysterious quality. She has insisted that her pictures are not illustrations or narratives, but stories, and she once said that she paints ‘to give terror a face’.
Using various techniques in painting and printmaking, she commented: ‘I turn to etching, and lithography, with a sense of exuberance and relief. In printmaking you can give your imagination full-range and see the results almost immediately. So one image triggers the idea for the next one and so on.’
Her nostalgic, extravagant and ebullient 2014 series “The Last King of Portugal’ features a range of powerful, figurative images that merge history with family stories, memory and Rego’s vivid imagination.
The last King of Portugal, Manuel II, is sometimes known as ‘the Patriot’ and sometimes ‘the Unfortunate’. In 1910, after the assassination of his father King Carlos I and his elder brother Prince Luís Filipe, Manuel fled from his country with his mother Queen Amélie of Orléans. The Republican revolution resulted in his permanent exile in Britain. As Rego also moved to Britain from Portugal, Rego shares some parallels with Manuel.
Rego portrays Manuel’s final moments before he died in 1932 aged forty-two. His condition was a tracheal oedema; a swollen throat that may have been caused by poisoning. She shows the man leaning back against plump white pillows, clutching his throat, his eyes rolling as he gasps in pain. It is a terrible death, but she depicts the exiled king with dignity, creating a moment of sadness.
With a light touch and confident handling of pastels, Rego has portrayed the ex-monarch in pale blue and white striped pyjamas to convey the notion that whoever we are, when we die, we are all the same. This is a modern interpretation of the vanitas. Despite the horror of the moment, the man continues to demonstrate his elegance and royalty through his understated, languishing pose.
4 DELICATE FOOT
Rego works quickly. Her method of applying and using pastels has evolved from her skills with collage, painting and various methods of printmaking. Using layers of small and longer strokes, she has drawn Manuel’s bare foot flexing as a dancer’s, only his foot moves in pain rather than in time to music.
His pale skin almost matches the white of his bed sheets, which are picked out with strong tonal contrasts in cool and warm greys, and serve to emphasize the young man’s pallor as death approaches.
5 COLLAGE EFFECT
The uniformed maidservant watches her master as he tries to draw breath. Clutching medicine that will be useless to attempt to administrate, she is almost objective as she contemplates what to do. Her grey and white uniform adds another dimension to the floral patterned rug, stripes of Manuel’s pyjamas and the patterned wallpaper behind her that resembles the heavy brocade of King Philip IV of Spain’s clothing in Velázquez’s painting (right). These contrasting patterns, colours and textures recall the effects of Rego’s earlier collages.
6 MIRROR REFLECTION
As well as the visual effect of multiplying the patterns, colours and textures, and of distorting the view, the mirrored wardrobe creates surreal juxtapositions in the composition.
In the reflection, the tiny man looks as if he is falling down and already dead, whereas the face of the maid resembles a religious icon, either an angel watching over him or a worshipper praying at an altar. The swathes of fabric with their contrasts in tone create a sense of muffled sound- as if within the mirror, silence has fallen after Manuel’s death.
This is the only portrait of King Philip IV of Spain that Velázquez painted during the 1640s. It commemorates a successful siege by the Spanish against the French, so the artist makes his monarch appear noble and commanding. Yet in Velázquez’s characteristic style, this is loosely painted, with free brushmarks capturing the effects of the textures and colours of the sumptuous fabrics, thrown forward against a dark background. Rego has always acknowledged the influence of Velázquez. Although Philip IV is shown healthy here and Rego depicts Manuel II dying, it can be seen how she has examined ways of presenting a sense of nobility and the contrasting textures of different fabrics.
Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces (book) by Susie Hodge
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published November 22nd 2016 by Thames Hudson (first published November 2016)
Original Title: Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces
ISBN 0500239541 (ISBN 13: 9780500239544)
Edition Language: English
View Paula Rego Painting Gallery