Exhibition curation, Arnolfini, 2022.
Born in Portugal in 1935, Paula Rego’s extraordinary imagination has led to her reputation as one of the leading figurative artists of her generation. Known for her powerful paintings and dynamic storytelling, she has also harnessed the alchemical power of printmaking, drawing audiences into her disquieting world.
Embracing etching and lithography at art school, Rego later recalled it was a relief from painting: ‘It’s like swimming after you have been on dry land for so long’. The spontaneity and fluidity found in printmaking can also be likened to the act of oral storytelling. Having learnt English at a young age, Rego’s own stories intertwine the fairy tales, folklore, and fables of both Portugal and England (her adopted home).
As a child Rego would play with a miniature Spanish theatre acting out the everyday and filling the pages of diaries and sketchbooks with illustrated words and images. Her subsequent work explores a multitude of themes including power, rebellion, sexuality, gender, religion, and the inherent brutality of life.
It is within these hybrid, interwoven stories, that Rego reinterprets and subverts narratives. Placing women and girls at the centre, her storytelling challenges established gender roles, fuels sexual ambiguity, undermines the innocence of children, and interchanges traditional notions of good and evil.
Rego utilises the implicit nature of storytelling as a subversive act, employing its shapeshifting qualities to explore an idea from multiple angles, often in series. In a similar manner she draws on the metaphorical possibilities of printmaking, a medium reliant upon the contrast between light and shade. Childish mischief takes on a darker meaning, whereas the harrowing practice of illegal abortion is brought out of the shadows.
Within these ‘subversive stories’ Rego draws together the multi-layered language of print with an age-old love of literature, reminding us that: ‘it is through stories that we interpret the world around us’. A master of reinterpreting, reimagining, and reinspiring, it is with glee that she shares (in a recent documentary) that she is, still, ‘always looking out for a story’.
The Tea Party (from Curved Planks series) Paula Rego 2009 Courtesy Paula Rego and Cristea .