Paula Rego and her House of (often uncomfortable!) Stories

It was November 2017 and a magical sunny morning. In fact, many November days are that beautiful in that town whose name is Cascais. It is the centre of a riviera with a long tradition of travel and tourism, located in the nearest surroundings of Lisbon, Portugal. After a walk on the beach, I visited one particular museum, in a building with a “strange” shape. It was the Casa das Historias Paula Rego, in other words, the house of stories.

To conclude this women’s history month in which Fun Museums got some unique insights about the great Marija Juric Zagorka from Croatia and Melina Mercouri from Greece, I would like to conclude it with the story about one Portuguese lady, now. Paula Rego is a painter, living in London and right now she is 86 years old.

This women’s history month has also featured the Barbie Doll, whose story shows that a girl can become anything she dreams to be. Well, Paula Rego is one of the good examples of that.

The Dance 1988 © Paula Rego, Tate Modern

Who is Paula Rego?

Although I studied History of Art along with the Portuguese language, I have to admit I got only some limited insights about Paula Rego. She is not often featured on the lists of “amazing women” in special programs about arts and cultures. I guess it is because her story is quite complex. First, she didn’t have to fight or struggle to follow an art career as she had a full support from her family. Second, she married a fellow artist, the man of her choice, Victor Willing. Finally, she managed to develop an outstanding career in arts. On the other hand, her struggles mostly relate to her never-ending attempt to find more ideals and follow them.

In other words, Paula Rego has always thrived to do more as an artist than she did before the given moment. She also played an important role in the improvements of women’s rights in her native Portugal.

Casa das Historias Paula Rego

Casa das Historias Paula Rego
The Museum “Casa das Historia Paula Rego”

As the picture suggests, this museum building is an artwork itself. I say it is my favourite project from the Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, one of the two Pritzker Prize winners from the country (the other one being Alvaro Siza Vieira). A little curiosity for my Croatian readers: Souto de Moura is also the architect of the unique “house without windows” in the centre of Zagreb.

The colour of this building gives quite a nice and subtle idea about the painter. Paula Rego’s favourite technique is pastel, and this soft tone reflects it very nicely. On the other hand, Rego’s style is far from being soft and sweet. She is one of those brave artists who reflect discomfort, shame, and fear through her art.

Freedom and dictatorship

Nowadays freedom of speech is often taken for granted and some abuse it for obscure agendas. It is incredibly hard to imagine how the life in Portugal was during the dark era of Salazar. The dictator who ruled the country for over 30 years limited education, the access to information, and censored every media. Additionally, he imposed almost a medieval idea of “traditional family” in which women had little to no rights, along with some hardcore idea about patriotism that included a bloody fight to keep the colonies in Africa.

In contrast, Paula’s family was living a free spirit despite all the struggles. After she graduated from the international British School in Cascais she moved to England to study on the academy of fine arts at the age of 17. It wasn’t enough for her just yet. She wasn’t only oriented on becoming a nice student with beautiful drawings. As soon as she realised that her education teaches a very traditional and academic approach to visual arts, she started creating “clandestine” sketchbooks, with a style that pleased her. Not surprisingly, Paula Rego’s first art was the abstract one instead of representational.

After all, Rego never allowed any freedom limiting rules to define her.

War 2003, © Paula Rego. Presented by the artist (Building the Tate Collection) 2005

The pastel painting “War” uses the memories of the Second World War, during which Paula saw and met refugees who were coming to the area where she lived in Portugal in her childhood. However, the painting represents a more recent war, the one in Iraq in 2003. The scene represents a child’s dream that goes from a fairytale to a nightmare.

Women’s rights

Paula Rego has 3 children, and she was married for almost 30 years before her husband passed away. She went through the family struggles from the early death of her father, living between the two countries, to the fact that her husband was a disabled person in his last years due to multiple sclerosis. In fact, she understand the typical life struggles of a random “woman next door” character, or as they say in Portuguese “mulher do povo”.

One of her main concerns was the women’s life in a very traditional and conservative society like Portugal was during her youth. For years, she was an activist for abortion rights. We all known that many religions limit the women’s rights to abortion due to their moral beliefs. For many years, Catholic Church had a strong influence on Portuguese laws, so abortion wasn’t only prohibited but heavily criminalised. Women were seeking obscure and illegal solutions; not only they risked their health for that, but they also risked ending up in the prison.

Bride, 1994 © Paula Rego; Tate Modern, London

Paula was vocal about it for years. In an incredible turn of cultural trends over the recent years, Portugal legalised the rights to abortion, but it was only a start. The country is now widely known for very inclusive laws regarding LGTB, while decriminalisation of drugs gave some surprisingly good results.

The painting “Bride” represents a series of “Dog women”, showing how women often receive a teaching of loyalty and obedience similar to the one dogs receive.

The feeling of discomfort

One thing we can all learn from Paula Rego is that we need to deal with discomfort. Instead of running away and avoiding all the uncomfortable things, we need to face them.

The exhibition inside the museum in the time of my visit. Taking photos was not allowed, and I got a permission to take one photo after I kindly asked for it. These masks represent Rego’s special styling of animal faces on many of her works. It was uncomfortable, but I showed my nice manners and interest in the topic that goes beyond “bucket lists” for tourists.

More Fun Museums stories about uncomfortable things are coming up. Museums are fun, but above all, they are complex. We don’t want to banalise them. Instead, we want to give a deserved respect to everything they contain, in a way that is occasionally uncomfortable for good.

For anyone who wants to know more, I recommend this playlist on YouTube where Paula tell her biography in 51 short clips.

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