The London lock-up doesn’t seem to have an entrance. It’s the type of disused garage in which bodies are found years after the crime. I knock and knock, and hope for the best. Eventually, a camouflaged door creaks open to reveal an elderly woman, spindly and shuffling. She looks up uncertainly. Then she smiles through crooked teeth that belong in fairy tales and reveals an astonishing, sprite-like sexiness.
You don’t enter Paula Rego‘s world so much as fall through the rabbit hole. Inside her studio there’s a stuffed dog with great growling teeth and bloodied tongue (created by her son-in-law, the artist Ron Mueck), a stray tricycle, a doll drowning in a well, a girl being raped by moonlight and a stuffed clothes rail. Not forgetting an androgynous dummy with breasts, penis and vagina. And, of course, rabbits: a rabbit going to war, a rabbit with a castrated carrot, a newly pregnant rabbit (Rego) telling a weeping onion (her mother) the news.
In the corner is a net that could belong to the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “That’s to catch the bumblebees.” Blimey, they must be bigguns. “Oh yes. We have lots, and I don’t like them. I used to spray them with fixative.” Does she enjoy watching them die? “No, I wanted them to die quickly, but they took a long time and I couldn’t step on them because the squash would be disgusting. Would you like a croissant?”
At 74, Rego is widely regarded as one of the world’s great figurative artists, firmly established after decades of anonymity. Her work – paintings, pastel drawings, prints – is valued in the millions, a film has just been made about her, and next month a wonderful museum dedicated to her work opens in Cascais, a coastal town outside Lisbon. She doesn’t like the idea of a museum, so it has been named House Of Stories: Paula Rego. It’s one of very few galleries dedicated to a living artist.
The art critic Robert Hughes has said that Rego is “the best painter of women’s experiences alive today”; flattering, but perhaps not flattering enough. After all, to understand women so acutely, she also has to understand men. What is certainly true is that women – whether as dogs, rabbits, weeping onions or just themselves – form the heart of her pictures. House Of Stories is the perfect name for the museum. Rego is a storyteller, myth-maker and magic realist, who takes everyday family life and twists it into something quietly – and sometimes not so quietly – shocking. Portugal is everywhere in her work: in the indigo skies, in the Catholic iconography, in the women with big bottoms and muscular thighs. Most of all, it is in the dark, disarming stories. Her bright yellows, blues and pinks tell stories of rape and female circumcision, of impotence and unspeakable desire. Her victims are often voracious monsters; her monsters passive victims. The painting The Family is classic Rego. A suited man sits on a bed while a woman, maybe his wife, seems to be helping him out of his jacket. A severe girl, maybe his daughter, stares into his face and tugs at his trousers. A younger girl stands by a window, her hands clasped in prayer or pleasure. Are they helping a sick man, or taking revenge?
Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935. Her father was an electronics engineer; her mother studied at art school but never practised as an artist. For Paula’s first two years, her parents lived in England, where her father was working, and she was looked after by her adored grandmother and an aunt who dressed as a man and told savage fairy tales. There’s a story Rego likes to tell, which she says is particularly Portuguese. “Once there lived a woodcutter who went out one day. While he was away, his wife realised they had run out of food. She didn’t want her husband to go hungry, so she cut off her right breast and cooked it for him. When he returned, he sat down and ate everything. The next day, they were still out of food so, in desperation, she cut off her left breast. When he came home, he saw she no longer had any breasts. He asked why, and she said she had cooked them for him because there was nothing else. He sighed, and said that now both breasts had been eaten, she’d have to start on the children.”
Rego grew up obedient and terrified. Was the fear specific? She nods. “It was a fear of waking up with the steps of death walking down the corridor next to your bedroom. And you wake up, rush into your parents’ room because they sleep next to you, and death comes and gets into bed with us all.”
She didn’t like to talk, but she loved to draw. She was comforted by the sound of pencil and chalk on paper. Kkkkrrrrrrrrrr. An almost pneumatic noise. She made a similar sound as she drew. For a withdrawn girl, it was liberating. “You punish people with drawings, you could take revenge. I always drew boys.” What was the revenge? “You get a person you’re cross with and turn him into some very unpleasant creature. And then cut off his tail. Hahaha!” She often uses the word “sexy” about art. Of course, she says, when I point this out – painting is sexual. “It’s erotic. You do it with your hand, it’s the same feeling of being possessed by desire.”
Her mother was clever, arty and took her on lavish shopping sprees. She lived with Rego until she died, but the artist never felt much warmth fo her. Her father was silent and depressive and liked to frighten her with stories from Dante’s Inferno. She couldn’t have loved him more.
Rego grew up under Salazar’s Catholic, rightwing dictatorship. It blighted everything, she says. “It created a whole mood: secret police, lack of learning, idealisation of poverty. He made it seem so romantic: ah, the poor people doing their cabbages, how lovely being a country person. But the country people were miserably poor and the fishermen’s wives miserable, always having abortions.”
Rego was lucky. She received a good education at an English language school, was encouraged in her art, won prizes. At 16, she left for finishing school in England. She couldn’t stand it. “I got terribly fat. There was still rationing, and we had lots of jelly. I like jelly. They called me Sancho Panza because I weighed 18 stone.” At 17, she went to the Slade School of Fine Art, determined to become a storytelling artist. She laughs at her naivety: “It was forbidden, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
When LS Lowry visited, she showed him her work. He told her he couldn’t do what she did, and asked to buy a painting. Even now she repeats his words with pleasure: “I couldn’t do that!”
Then she showed her work to another artist. “Do you know Victor Passmore?” she asks. I shake my head. “No. Good. Serves him right, silly bugger. I had another of those sessions with him. He’d just become an abstract artist, and he looked at my pictures and said, ‘How can you still be doing this kind of thing? It’s terrible. Have you not heard of abstract art?’ And I got more and more embarrassed, and sad really. And ashamed. He said it was a load of rubbish, then he got on his bike and went away. I never got over that.”
At the Slade she also met Victor Willing, a married student seven years her senior. They began an affair, she fell desperately in love, and became pregnant. When she told him, he said he was going back to his wife. Rego called her father, who drove straight from Portugal to take her home. He was so kind with her, so gentle, she says. On the way home they ate ice cream and listened to opera.
It wasn’t the first time Willing had made her pregnant. “Everybody got pregnant many times in those years. There wasn’t any contraception, really.” But this time she knew she would keep the baby, even if single motherhood did for her dreams. But it must have been devastating when Willing dumped her? “Yeah… it was.” She still finds it hard to talk about. A few months later, Willing left his wife and joined Rego in Portugal. They lived with her parents, were married, and had three children.
It is perhaps the intensity of her love for Willing, his rejection and eventual return, that most shaped her work. The two artists struggled financially and were heavily reliant on Rego’s parents. In 1966, both their fathers died, and Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; he sacrificed his art to run the Rego family business. When the 1974 Portuguese revolution led to the failure of the company, the family returned to England.
Having been an obedient daughter, Rego became an obedient wife. In a way, she says, this is what the female students at the Slade were groomed for – to be the muse or empathetic partner of a male artist. She never questioned that Willing was the greater painter; she was awed by his intellect, shrank in his presence. “When I was with my husband, I loved him desperately, but I couldn’t talk. For instance, there’d be a group of people, intellectual people, and they’d be talking about something and they’d turn to me and say, ‘Paula, what do you think about it?’ I just froze.”
She always asked Willing’s advice, and invariably heeded it. Why? “It was because he knew and I bloody didn’t,” she says irascibly. “He could see and I couldn’t. Stupid cow. I was ignorant.”
Were they competitive with each other? “No! How could I be competitive with him? He was a proper artist.” But you are a great artist, I say. “Oh no. No, I’m not. He was. He was a great artist. Not me. Oh no. I don’t do paintings in oil paint, and proper artists do oil paint. I’m not intense enough.”
Beneath the diffidence, there is something else. Yes, she was submissive to Willing, but she was also in charge. After all, much of the time he was bed-ridden. In a series of paintings, Girl And A Dog, which he encouraged, a sick canine has its jaws yanked apart by a girl to be force-fed. “There was hurting and healing at the same time. They were about Vic.” Men are often emasculated or metaphorically castrated in her work, dominated by their women. In another series, Rego creates dog-women – feral, on all fours, bereft of dignity, but not to be messed with.
Willing was a respected artist, but never became a star. Rego received knockback after knockback, but was undeterred. “I’d take my portfolio to a gallery and people would turn the pages, looking the other way.” Willing’s work was acknowledged long before hers, so did she feel… She finishes the sentence for me: “Bitter? No, not bitter. Disappointment.” She pauses. “Shame.”
It wasn’t until 1987 that Rego had her first major exhibition in Britain. Her dystopian vignettes caught the public imagination. The Policeman’s Daughter shows a young woman with her arm rammed deep into her father’s boot, cleaning it ferociously. In The Maids, based on Genet’s tale, two sisters plot the murder of the wealthy woman they work for – but the woman in the skirt, jacket and heels appears to be a moustachioed man. Much of her work is directly inspired by literature, from Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis to Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman.
Willing died in 1988. A year later, Rego was shortlisted for the Turner prize. How did success feel? “I was very, very glad to be able to sell my pictures. We had great money difficulties at the time.” Anything more than relief? “My God, yes. I felt good because it’s worth something. They’re taking me seriously. They’re taking me seriously.”
A week later, and I’m on the train from Lisbon to Cascais, surrounded by the kind of women Rego paints – muscular, masculine, exhausted, characterful. “Ah yes,” says Rego when she meets me at House Of Stories, “grotesque beauty. The Portuguese have a culture that lends itself to the most grotesque stories you can imagine.”
She tells a couple to illustrate. First, that of the boys she grew up with in the hills, who spent their days shooting sparrows for no reason. Second, more grotesque, that of a dog she used to own. “You know when dogs turn on their backs, the little ones, to expose themselves, and say, ‘Don’t eat me, I’m showing you my belly’? Well, my big dog, he used to eat their little tummies. He saw these little doggies and he’d rip off their tummies. Grrrrrrr.”
Rego was celebrated in Portugal some time before she was in Britain. When she had a retrospective in 2004, Porto’s Serralves museum was open 24 hours a day, with guided tours in the middle of the night. Five years on, the Portuguese have built a museum for her. House Of Stories is bright orange: a concrete, minimalist, low-level rectangle with two huge pyramids on top. “You know what they call it?” She giggles. “The crematorium.” She looks more Portuguese here in her summer frock. Her eye shadow is black, and she’s giddy and nervous. She poses for photographs, arms outstretched like the dancers in her paintings. Again, it’s classic Rego – whereas Degas’ dancers are young and attractive, hers are old and sinewy, hungry with desire, but alone. Yet there’s still something life-affirming about them.
It’s only a few weeks until the museum opens, the paintings and prints are being hung, and Rego is worrying about the opening night. How she wishes she could just stand in front of the audience and talk about the stories that have inspired her. Maybe she will, but it would be a first. Actually, she says, she is much more confident than she was.
Rego is a manic depressive, and three years ago she suffered a “whopper”. Did she retreat from other people? “Oh good heavens, no, I can’t be alone. When it’s really, really bad, there’s nothing worse in the world.” Her art helped her out of the depths – a project designing wrapping paper for the Guardian, in fact. “First, I tied Lila in ribbons and drew her, and then I untied her and I began to feel better.” Lila Nunez has modelled for her for decades, and is not so much a muse as a manifestation of Rego’s younger self. Her close friend, the writer Tony Rudolf, models for her male characters. Rego used to create pictures purely from her head, but these days she uses live models and props to create scenes before drawing them. Hence the model of a baby drowning in a well.
Rego spent decades in therapy, and says it liberated her imagination. What are her manic periods like? “Ach,” she says, “the manic period doesn’t seem to happen that often now. It happened when I was very young.”
She leads me to the first room, displaying work from this early period – elaborate squiggles and collage. “I would do one a day, and it was marvellous. If that’s manic, let’s have a bit more manic.” The paintings are unrecognisable from her mature style. “I tended to make political scenes out of bits of paper. I was able to illustrate things more directly than when I became a more figurative artist.” A couple of paintings seem to nod to Guernica. Was she influenced by Picasso? “No, I could never dare. I was influenced by all the surrealists – Ernst was my hero. And I started looking at Dubuffet and realised you could tell stories that were made up as you go along.” She directs me to a picture. “Here is a vagina coming out of blood, and a rope to climb into his willy. Yes, it is quite sexual, yes. Haha!” Next is another shaggy dog story. “My husband had a heart attack when he was 30, and a dog came and called me. I went up and found him and he was eating the earth. It’s called The Republican Exile Dreaming Of His Mother Country”. And finally there is a collage satirising Salazar’s forays into Africa called When We Had A House In The Country We Gave Marvellous Parties And Then We’d Go Outside And Shoot All The Black Men. The picture is nowhere near as good as the title.
She has occasionally created political work for propaganda purposes – the harrowing abortion series of prints, for instance, in which women are doubled up just after illegal abortions. These drew comparisons with Goya, and were made in response to a referendum in Portugal in 2000, which led to abortion being legalised. Rego received much of the credit for swaying public opinion. She has recently completed a series on female circumcision.
We move through the rooms, stopping by The Policeman’s Daughter. “Ah, she’s fist fucking the boot,” Rego comments gently.
Since the mid-90s, she has turned her back on paint and worked mainly in pastel. “Yes. Pastel, pastel, pastel, pastel, pastel,” she recites. “Never rubbing anything. Drawing, drawing, drawing.” Why did she stop painting? “I don’t like the wonkiness of the brush, I’m not mad about the lyrical quality of the brush. I much prefer the hardness of the stick because it’s kkkkkkrrrrrrr. The stick is fiercer, much more aggressive.”
Like her? She smiles. “I’m not aggressive, I’m a very mild and well brought up person.”
The policeman’s daughter does not look mild, but Rego says she is another figure of obedience. “She loves her father, and he’s not been very nice to her. She is just following what her dad wanted.” Was she ever abused? “Me, no, never.”
We reach her classic Snow White pictures. In one, Snow White, a mature woman rather than the little girl we’d expect, is sitting in a chair fondling the head of a deer her father has shot; in the other, she holds on to her skirt as she falls, having swallowed the poisoned apple. “Look, even when they fall, they cover their knickers so they don’t show their bums. She’s more worried about showing herself than having swallowed the apple and choking.” She points to the corner of the deer painting, where a mean-looking woman is drawn in miniature. “That’s the nasty stepmother.” There are so many crazy families in your paintings, I say. She throws back her head and laughs. “Lots and lots and lots and lots of them. It’s all about family. Good and bad, it all happens in the family.”