Paula Rego, The Little Murderess, 1987

A woman lies on her back. Beneath her is a crumpled, crimson bedspread. She turns to her right side. Her knees are bent, approaching but not quite reaching a foetal position. Her black, patterned dress rides part way up her legs. A button has come undone, revealing a triangle of bare skin at her midriff. Her hands meet, one on top of the other, resting on the left side of her chest. Her facial muscles are slack. Her mouth is slightly open as if she hasn’t the energy to close her lips. She is pastel on paper, but her laboured breath is almost audible. Her eyes are open, staring blankly at a point beyond the frame. They are dry, but underneath are dark, puffy patches. These are not seeing eyes. These are the eyes of a woman exhausted by emotion, racked by anxiety, ruined by longing. Paula Rego calls this work, Love.[1]

Paula Rego Love 1536x1165
Paula Rego, Love, 1995

I don’t want to look at the woman in Love. As with so many of Rego’s women, she has me wanting to turn away. She evokes the terrifyingly familiar. Shakes awake deeply buried parts of ourselves. Reminds us of what we’ve worked hard to forget. Hers is not the daydream of a woman happily in love, a woman waiting for a certain reunion with a lover. She has lost herself in another. Been caught out by dependence. She is overwhelmed by emotion, stultified by its extremity. She is grieving a relationship, a person whose emotions she tried and failed to control.

Is it shame that makes me turn from her before forcing myself to look again. I want to whisper to her, don’t let them see you like this. Where is your pride? At least pretend to be alright. I want to cover her up, protect her from the eyes of onlookers like myself. People around me pause to look at her. They cock their heads, lean forward, peer at the work’s title, step back and look again. I tense up, anxious for them to move away. They are looking at the woman in Love, but I feel as though their eyes are boring into me.

Rego refuses to be embarrassed by the emotions of her women. She does not look away. So much so that she works in a studio with no windows. ‘The view takes you outside’, she says. ‘The studio’s an extension of your head…so…you don’t really need to look out’.[2] She gives herself no way out of the dark places within her, no easy place to rest her gaze. Rego’s women are hers, imagined and brought to life in a windowless room, but they are also her. She would sooner kill hope than stifle a scream. She does not have her women smile and make believe. She strips emotion down to the bone. Confronts us with truth, raw and lurching. Neither dressed up, nor easier to look at than ourselves.

In the wake of heartbreak, I have lain like the woman in Love, inert, hopeless. I have played along with lovers’ games. Forgiven sins. Begged for another chance to be held. Tried not to be too much. Twisted words and body. Stayed awake all night just to feel the weight of an arm across my chest. Friends often say, it isn’t love if it leaves you feeling like that. But it is. Love is not one thing. It is felt on a continuum of pleasure and pain. It is expressed on a spectrum of sacrifice and selfishness, jealousy and generosity, compliance and defiance. A scale so muddled and sheer, it confuses fear with longing, cruelty with kindness, life with death. After all, Rego has another work in which a man strikes a similar pose to that of the woman in Love. Except this man’s hands meet close to his throat. Except this man is dying.[3]

In The Little Murderess, a young girl in a white-collared, pale green dress, her hair in plaited pigtails, holds taut between her fists a thick, emerald-green ribbon. She approaches crumpled white sheets, the corner of an unmade bed. What she intends to kill lies in the vicinity of this bed, beyond the frame. Rego has described this painting as an exploration of the sometimes dark implications of love and dependence; she painted The Little Murderess as she awaited the imminent death of her husband, the artist, Victor Willing. When Willing was first taken ill, Rego felt that if he were to die, she would not be able to live. ‘I was so bound to him’, she says, ‘it was like a kind of amputation to imagine he might die’.[4] In The Little Murderess, it is as if Rego was trying to pre-empt the sense of dislocation she feared she would feel after Willing’s death by taking hold of herself and destroying her emotional dependence on him.

It is while standing in front of the woman in Love that I realise the frightening effect of Rego’s women is not a sign of dislocation but of connection with the artist and her work. I feel strongly Rego would permit, even invite my own inordinate expressions of loneliness and pain. She would surely say, of course you cry and beg. You are afraid of the dark. Like me, you were afraid of everything as a child.[5] So long as emotion is true, it deserves representation in life and art. Pain is neither simple nor neat. It is deep, complex and brims. Its patterns have old and intricate roots. Our pain makes people want to turn away, even those who love us, out of helplessness, fear, or exhaustion, but it is not to be carried as shame. No, we must know our pain, own it and give it outline, shape and colour. Consequences can come of our too-honest, too-raw expressions of pain. Loneliness. Grief. Unfulfilled desire. But there are also other things. Like making them into art. As Rego says, ‘[t]he fear goes into the picture’.[6]

Rego’s great, early and ongoing fear is the dark.[7] She was in analysis for 40 years, a process which allowed her to access her unconscious, to learn to translate darkness, past and present pain, into pictures. In spite of the transformative effect therapy had on her work, Rego could never rid herself of fear. She describes it as ‘the most powerful’ emotion, ‘the one that pursues you all your life, since you were a baby’. It’s the ‘crying and crying’, she says, ‘and nobody coming to help’.[8] Rego has suffered from self-doubt her whole life. ‘I’m not brave in real life’, she says, ‘but I’m not frightened of doing anything in my work.’[9] For Rego, the pictures and the personal are tracks which run in parallel, never meeting. Her work, not a mirror, but another self of hers entirely. It comes to embody the self she keeps hidden, the brave, rageful, vengeful Rego. ‘It is always easier’, she says, ‘to do things in pictures than to do it personally’.[10] Like Rego, I can often know something in my work, in writing, and yet not know it in and for living. Even as I etch brave words onto a page, I can unknow them in feeling, in fear. Leaving the reader with the sense that I am braver than I am. Turning pain into pictures or words, does not purge the body of fear, but is an expression of power, of resistance. ‘In a picture you change the story’, Rego says. ‘The act of drawing is power. Beneath it you might be scared. What you depict might be the fear you feel, but in making that into art, you are powerful, expressing power’.[11]

Rego’s mother would know her daughter was content and drawing in her nursery when she could hear her groaning. To the surprise of her peers, Rego emitted the same deep groan of her childhood when she started as a student at The Slade School of Fine Art. This groan of Rego’s seems to embody the eroticism in and of her work. One of Rego’s earliest memories of The Slade is the smell of naked flesh. Going into the life room for the first time, she was alarmed because she did not know how to draw the naked women, who did not blend into the background, but seemed powerfully present.[12] For Rego, ‘[e]verything’s erotic because work itself is erotic. Work, doing work, that is to say drawing, is an erotic activity’.[13]

For Rego, raising children often felt like play acting, playing house, a childhood game. ‘It was brush or baby’, she says.[14] Her ambivalent attitude to parenting did not escape her children, who describe her as distant and unreachable.[15] They were forbidden from entering her studio and often felt like the sideshow to her work and her intense relationship with Willing. Rego, in a characteristic display of frankness, does not deny that her children, though she loves them, were separate from the activity that made her feel herself. It was in drawing and painting that she came alive. ‘Painting pictures is like being a man. It’s that part of you…Even the way you stand or sit, confronting the work like a man, that has to do with the aggressive part. It has a kind of push, the thrust, which is what you associate with the man’.[16]

Though I don’t subscribe to Rego’s characterisation of the powerful force within women as a male part, nor the gendered binary she draws, I know from writing what it feels to drive, to forge one’s way in the world through art, to feel the erotic power in one’s creative practice. Writing from the body carries an innate sensuality. Like Rego’s preference for hard pastel over paint, so that she can feel resistance and push and scratch her way onto the paper. Like being carried by water, or caught in sultry climes. Wandering through the streets of Kyoto one summer, tagging along on a lover’s conference trip, the deep and humid heat constantly renewed the sweat on my skin. When circled by the occasional breeze, I felt every pore on my body.

Rego’s Dog Woman[17] squats and snarls. She is ready to pounce, to fight, to defend herself. She is unashamed of her pain, her desire. She is ‘not downtrodden, but powerful’. For Rego, ‘[t]o be bestial is good. It’s physical. Eating, snarling. All activities to do with sensation are positive’.[18] I stop at Bad Dog.[19] A woman on all fours. Her back arched and her pelvis low as she straddles a grey-blue bedspread. Her blue-laced, chiffon night dress is pulled down to her waist. Her left breast is just visible. She looks over her right shoulder at someone beyond the frame. Perhaps an object of desire, or a person who has forced her to adopt this submissive position. Her facial expression is hidden. Is her stance one of wild impatience, desperate desire, or is she a passive, punished, obedient object? I move away, confused and wanting.

Dog woman 1994
Paula Rego, Dog Woman, 1994

Rego made the Dog Woman series after Willing’s death. The works remind her of good and painful memories of their relationship. She says, ‘even bad memories are good’, that ‘all memory is good’.[20] Rego confesses her obedience to her husband. She never stood up to him, even when he was unfaithful to her. Despite her jealousy, her distress, she would not confront him or try to stop him. She feared that if she became too demanding, he would leave her. She says of herself, ‘I was just really a passive thing there for him to use’.[21] Painting was the only outlet Rego found for her rage.

When I learn of Rego’s deference to her husband, I am disappointed. I stop writing about her for a while. I go out for a walk, wishing I had not looked too much into her personal life. As I walk, wondering how to square the power of Rego’s work with her submissiveness to her husband, I begin to feel an affinity with her, recalling the times I tolerated abuse in relationships, or hid aspects of myself from lovers in order to avoid confrontation or rupture. And then was silent, ashamed, afraid and unforgiving of myself, for years, even now, all the while presenting to the world as a feminist. I feel compassion for Rego and discomfort at my disillusion. To reject Rego for the way she expresses love, sometimes through willing sacrifice and submission, is to look away from the woman in Love. It is to refuse reality, and to want instead impossible perfection, the hallmark of patriarchy, a falsity that can be admired fully and simply.

Rego describes herself as being painfully shy. Her work is the only place where she can show the defiant, rageful parts of herself. The parts she is too afraid to live.[22] I know that like Rego, I will not always be able to weld the words I write, the feminism I advocate, to my days. I will not always find it in me to weave them into the connections I make with friends and lovers. We can only try not to look away, to love, to make art and write in spite of our fragility, need and longing. And hope to be loved in spite, even for, our honest expressions of pain. As Victor Willing wrote of the weak and monstrous figure that so often appears in Rego’s work, ‘if it can be described, it can be forgiven for being what it is and made loveable even’.[23]

To force Rego into the shape of an uncomplicated feminist icon and activist, as the Tate attempts to do in its curation of her work, and as I had wanted to do, misses the point about her art, and feminism more broadly.[24] Feminism will always fail as a political project if it upholds a politics of purity, one that neglects to account for women’s own capacity for violence, against themselves and others. Rego’s embodiment of both compliance and defiance in her life and work is illustrative of her brutally honest acceptance of, and openness about, her complicated self and the people she loves. She could not produce the work she does without accessing and owning the darker, perverse, less appealing parts of herself. Rego’s daughter, Cas Willing, describes her mother’s love for her father as total, as self-sacrificial. If she loved and was hurt in return, that was not of her, but symptomatic of the other’s love.[25] Rego’s love encapsulates a brave willingness to be vulnerable, to embrace love in all its shades of pleasure and pain, to withdraw her defences completely in offering herself up to another, to intimacy itself, to a closeness that demands a rubbing raw of her heart. What she receives in return, whether hurt or betrayal, is not of her making. It is the darkness inside the other. But the revulsion, the pain, the anger she feels finds its place in her pictures. Rego’s work forces us to confront our own capacity for rage, weakness, violence, dependence, and for a love so complicated it wrests us from ourselves and binds us painfully, irrevocably, to others.


Nadine El-Enany is a writer and teacher at Birkbeck College and author of (B)ordering Britain.


[1] Paula Rego, Love, 1995
[2] Paula Rego, Desert Island Discs, 7 December 1997
[3] Paula Rego, The King’s Death, 2014
[4] Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories, Nick Willing, 2017
[5] See Paula Rego, ‘Painting is not a career. It’s an inspiration’ The Guardian 15 November 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/ar…
[6] Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories
[7] Paula Rego, Desert Island Discs
[8] Christina Patterson, ‘Paula Rego’s private world’ The Independent Friday 25 January 2013
[9] Paula Rego, ‘Painting is not a career. It’s an inspiration’
[10] Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories
[11] Ibid.
[12] Paula Rego, Desert Island Discs
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories
[16] Paula Rego, Desert Island Discs
[17] Paula Rego, ‘Dog Woman’, 1994
[18] Paula Rego, on ‘Dog Woman’, 1994
[19] Paula Rego, ‘Bad Dog’, 1994
[20] Paula Rego, Desert Island Discs
[21] Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Paula Rego, Tate Britain, 2021
[25] Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories