I haven’t seen her octopus. So Paula Rego leads me through the vivid jumble of creatures and characters and works-in-progress that occupies her Kentish Town studio, to show me her octopus. On the way, there are other introductions to be made. ‘There’s my big foetus, and there’s my little foetus,’ Rego says, pointing out a couple of gory, misshapen little models with snaking umbilical attachments. ‘They’re rather horrible, aren’t they?’ They are. Nearby is an unfinished painting, showing a young girl at a typewriter menacing a pair of monkeys with a gun. ‘When she found out that they couldn’t type Shakespeare, she had to shoot them,’ Rego blithely explains. One of the models for this work—a beautiful, life-sized monkey doll in a blue dress—is sitting in dejected solitude nearby. In Rego’s words, ‘She’s done naughties.’ And then there’s the octopus: a great rubbery thing in shades of mauve, slumped on the floor with tentacles akimbo.
Rego’s workspace, where she has spent six days a week for the past decade, and which she regards as ‘home’, is a repository for thrilling objects, oddly juxtaposed. Frocks jostle with furs, dolls cuddle together, ratty stuffed animals crouch in corners. These props—some found, some built, some loaned or given by other artists—are all for use in Rego’s paintings, and all echo her long-standing preoccupations: the shadows in the corners of the nursery, the lewd undercurrents in myths and fairytales, the jarring proximity of fantasy and pretence to painful reality. In person, Rego tends towards the cheerier side: she strongly resists ‘jargon’, and her discussion of her own work is characterised by an affectionate irreverence. It took time to reach this contented plateau. ‘After a bit you discover that you have to play ,’ she says. ‘You’ve got to be able to enjoy yourself doing it—it’s not duty.’ At present, her form of play involves the building of elaborate still lives, inspired by existing stories. She’s currently working from tales by the playwright Martin McDonagh; a figure inspired by his nightmarish creation the Pillowman is a frequent visitor to her paintings, and another unsettling occupant of her studio. ‘I used to have a space that was whitewashed, with nothing in it, and that was good too,’ Rego says of the theatre around her. ‘But now I copy things; I don’t do much from my head, except the initial drawings. You do a scene and then you copy it; it’s easier than making it up.’ The structures themselves – currently including an upended pile of furniture from which a stunted figure in a sou’wester is casting a fishing line, and a scarecrow in an elegant New Look frock with a cow’s skull for a head—are dismantled once their purpose is served. ‘This is coming down, because I’ve done it, and it’s poisoning the place,’ Rego says. She’d never consider keeping or displaying the three-dimensional work? ‘Certainly not. I can’t keep this, can I? It would take up all the space.’
Born in Portugal in 1935, Rego attended the Slade from 1952 to 1956. There she met her husband and the father of her three children, Victor Willing, a guiding hand in her work and life until he died of multiple sclerosis in 1988. She was the first associate artist at London’s National Gallery, and now rates as one of the most highly prized (and valued) artists of her generation. Although she considers England to be her home, her native land remains pivotal to her work in terms of both atmosphere and subject matter. ‘Portugal is here ,’ she says. A recent series of paintings on the subject of abortion, displayed at Tate Britain as part of a widely acclaimed retrospective last year, were executed in angry response to a 1997 Portuguese referendum on legalisation, which met with a muted turnout and a half-hearted ‘no’ vote. The foetus models in the studio indicate a continuation of this theme in her new work.
Rego considers her work to be ‘personal, but not completely personal. It’s political, too, and funny—taking the piss.’ She’s impatiently aware of the double standard that invariably interprets women’s art along autobiographical lines. ‘They don’t ask about the men: when did he first get an erection, when did he first have a wet dream? They assume that’s all part of growing up, and that art is all painting with your willy. But with women, they always feel they’ve got to find the subject.’ Yet she does conceive of her own work in gendered terms: as a transmission of feminine experience through masculine craft. ‘When I’m painting, I’m a man,’ she says. ‘When I’m standing in front of this thing, bashing away at it—I could be reaping the corn, or whatever. The subject matter of the pictures is from the woman’s point of view, because I can’t identify with how a bloke feels. But the physicality of doing of it is male: aggressive, forceful, hard bloody work.’
Nonetheless, it’s the fineness of Rego’s drawing and the studied calm of her compositions that lends her paintings their troubling lucidity. Though she’s been criticised for being overly illustrative, Rego rejects the notion that the rejection of technique brings greater truth. ‘It’s very difficult to draw anything that looks nice!’ she exclaims. ‘People say: oh, I’m drawing too easily, I must use my left toe… this is ridiculous! If things are attractive, they can still be disturbing. Look at Poussin: the arrangement of the pictures is taut and very highly planned, the colours are beautiful, and yet they’re highly disturbing, because there are things lurking. I love that: clarity and fear. You don’t have to do things murky and fuzzy.’
The same sense of covert menace imbues the stories that Rego uses in her work, from nursery rhymes and Aesop’s fables to Jane Eyre and Kafka’s Metamorphosis . ‘Stories correspond to what’s in you,’ she says. And stories—strange, oft-told, half-remembered tales, with secret double meanings and endless private resonances—also shape the space in which she works. Just ask the octopus, the scarecrow, and that naughty monkey.
Hannah McGill is film critic for the Herald
Luke Watson is an Edinburgh-based photographer