Dame - Paula Rego
Artists & Illustrators|August 2021
Ahead of a landmark retrospective of the Portuguese-British artist’s work, MARTHA ALEXANDER speaks to curator Elena Crippa to get an insight into seven decades of fairytale, fear and freedom
Elena Crippa

In 2004, a retrospective of painter Paula Rego’s work at the Serralves museum in Porto was forced to keep its doors open 24 hours a day to accommodate demand from visitors.

Now, more than 15 years later Tate Britain prepares to open the largest and most comprehensive UK showcase of her life to date and it’s safe to say that there’s a substantial buzz around an exhibition that will feature more than 100 works, including collage, paintings, large-scale pastels, ink-and-pencil drawings, etchings and sculpture.

“This is my life’s dream,” says curator Elena Crippa of compiling this collection. “I keep hearing how excited everyone is – colleagues at Tate and beyond. I really feel this retrospective is so overdue and so needed. The number of people who tell me that they have stories about Paula – whether as a student, meeting her at an opening, or being taught by her – saying how generous she was with her time. There is something extraordinary about her as a human being as well as an artist.”

Paula’s career to date has spanned almost 70 years and has earned her a damehood, legions of fans and even a museum dedicated to her work, The Casa das Histórias Paula Rego (or “Paula Rego House of Stories”), in her native Portugal.

Britain has played an important role in her life, however. Paula lives and works in north London and it is here that her practice first developed. She is at once an artist, storyteller, feminist, activist, mother and child whose work combines darkness, pain and injustice with warmth, humour and expressions of pure pleasure.

There’s a lot of darkness in her paintings but there’s also humour and pleasure too. Irony and magic... All these things are there

Paula Rego was born Maria Paula Figueiroa Rego in Lisbon, Portugal, on 26 January 1935. As a child, she would spend hours indoors drawing. By the age of 17, she was in London studying at The Slade School of Fine Art where she recalls struggling to make accurate “to scale” drawings. It was during her time at The Slade that she met her future husband, the artist Victor Willing, who was seven years her senior. The pair had a shaky start, not least because he was initially married to someone else and Paula became pregnant with his child, but by 1959 they were married and settled together in Portugal.

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