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The dark days of Dame Paula Rego

Warts-and-all film reveals why work by Camden artist was kept locked away

16 March, 2017 — By John Evans

Paula Rego: Depression Series, Five, 2007, pastel on paper, 101.5 x 68.5cm. © Paula Rego, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

FOR those familiar with the works of Dame Paula Rego, the darker or grotesque side will seem more normal rather than shocking, even a defining feature.

So it is a little odd that it now emerges that she locked away 12 pastels, which went on show in London this week, because she was ashamed.

Why this is so is explained in a new television film due to be shown next week and in a catalogue by Marlborough Fine Art who are showing Paula Rego: Depression Series, at their gallery in Albemarle Street, Mayfair, until April 1.

The Portuguese-born artist, who lives and works in Camden and is now 82, opened up on camera for her award-winning film-maker son, Nick Willing. He said he was surprised, given her previous reluctance to share her thoughts.

“I always suffered from depression,” she said. And of the unseen works, added: “That’s how I was feeling. You’re kind of stuck and you hold on to things that make you more stuck. Like holding this rubber thing. You hold on to the wrong things thinking they’d help, but on the contrary, you don’t know good from bad.”

The “rubber thing” to which she referred can be seen in the pastel Five (above). Like the others, produced with the help of her long-term model and assistant Lila Nunes between 2006 and 2007, it had been put away in a drawer.

Paula Rego

The film might be described as a warts-and-all, family-driven, retrospective. As well as depression, there’s love, sex, hurt, repression, abortion, betrayal, infidelity, sickness, death, and more.

Nick Willing features and narrates and his sisters Cas (Caroline) and Victoria contribute, together with friends, colleagues, critics, and even former president of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio. The film explores the artist’s life and work through combining a huge archive of home movies and photographs with interviews spanning more than 60 years and covering her time in Portugal and the UK.

It is at its most poignant and revelatory when Dame Paula speaks candidly about her time at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1952 and 1956, how she first met fellow artist Victor Willing, and their turbulent relationship. They were married from 1959 to his death in 1988.

Beyond that, all are agreed that for Dame Paula – who has exhibited worldwide, was artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, and has had the Casa das Histórias Paula Rego dedicated to her art in Cascais, Portugal, since 2009 – it’s her work that is of paramount importance to her.

The film attempts to trace exactly what might have influenced her work at any one time, from the politics to the deeply personal, notably the state of Portugal, infidelities, and Victor’s demise; but in that it raises even more questions.

Son Nick said his mother discovered, even as a little girl, that she could act out her “fantasies and fears” through art to escape her repressive middle-class upbringing.

Daughter Cas more specifically stated: “She can face things head-on in the work – and she uses everything – and there’s always sex in there.”

Paula Rego: Depression Series, Marlborough Fine Art, Albemarle street, Mayfair, until April 1.
Paula Rego: Secrets & Stories, directed by Nick Willing, airs on BBC Two on March 25 at 9pm


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