Paula Rego, a feminist artist whose totemic chronicles of womanhood tackled the many societal taboos forced upon women and whose work is currently featured in this year’s Venice Biennale, has died at 87.
London’s Victoria Miro Gallery, who represents the artist, confirmed the news on Wednesday. In a statement, the gallery called Rego “an artist of uncompromising vision,” who brought “deep psychological insight and imaginative power to the genre of figurative art.”
In a career that spanned nearly eight decades, Rego explored the complexity of human relationships with a sensitivity to personal and political systems of power and control.
Her most impactful works visualized the repressed agency of women, such as her “Abortion” series (1998–99), which presented the anguish of unsafe abortions with a candor uncommon in Western art history. In these figurative paintings and pastels, women are shown at various moments during and after abortions that were administered in domestic spaces. They are often crouched or laying down in immense pain. In some, the women stare directly at the viewer, seemingly admonishing them for their role in preventing them having safe and legal abortions.
The series was inspired by a narrowly defeated referendum to legalize abortion in Rego’s native Portugal and is credited with helping sway public opinion in favor of legalizing abortion in the second referendum there in 2009.
“There were many things I wouldn’t have spoken about in real life, but in my paintings I could do anything. It’s allowed in pictures. Such a relief. At any rate, no one came to arrest me,” she said in a book of interviews with Rego conducted by other artists.
Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, under the regime of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Her parents had migrated to England and left her in a female household run by a grandmother, an aunt, maids and, in her telling, a severe governess. It was a privileged, liberal upbringing.
At 16, Rego was sent to a finishing school in Kent. She later studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, when Lucian Freud was a teacher there.
Portuguese society was repressive to women (they didn’t attain the right to vote until 1976) and Rego’s early works—collages of magazine and newspaper cut-outs and her own drawings—raged against the circumstances of women who weren’t born into her own socio-economic class. Her paintings started off as semi-abstract but over the course of her career, they shed their abstract nature and became defiantly figurative, rooted in Jungian theory, where primal fears manifest with a fantastical edge.
In 2021, a major retrospective of Rego’s work was staged at the Tate Britain. In an interview ahead of its opening with her friend, the poet Alberto de Lacerda, Rego called those early experiments attempts to thwart the escape from the idea of “high art.” She said she found inspiration in “caricature, newspaper reports, street events, proverbs, children’s songs, folk dances, nightmares, desires, and fears.”
Women, animals, and pubescent girls populate many of Rego’s canvas, which served as tools to work through her own personal matters. In the “Red Monkey” series from the ’80s, for example, roughly painted toy animals act as avatars for the extramarital affair of her husband, the artist Victor Willing. In one scene Rego cuts off the monkey’s tail with palpable relish.
Rego had her first solo show in 1965 in Portugal, and first solo in London was held at AIR Gallery in 1981. In 1988, her work was the subject of a traveling survey that made stops at two venues in Portugal and eventually the Serpentine Gallery in London. Since the ’90s, her work has been widely exhibited throughout Europe.
She began using pastels in the ’90s, ushering in a darker, more meditative phase focused on society. In 1994 she paints on her landmark series, “Dog Women,” in which women posture like dogs.
“To be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden; that has very little to do with it,” the artist said in 1997. “A dog learns people’s ways and behaves like a person, just as people do. Women learn from those they are with; they are trained to do certain things, but they are also part animal. They have independence of body, independence of spirit and their tastes can be quite gross.”
Rego was a relentless artist, and had recently turned toward candy-colored retellings of classic fairy tails, and intimate family tableaux.
Her 2021 Tate Britain retrospective traveled to the Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Hague, the Netherlands and is currently on view at the Museo Picasso in Málaga, Spain. Her work is also currently on view in the group exhibition “Women Painting Women” at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas.
In 2010, Rego was made a Dame Commander, one of the highest honors bestowed on a British citizen. Her work is held in numerous museums collections, including the British Museum, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Last year the artist suffered a fall that badly injured her face. The Financial Times visited her London studio after she recuperated and found that she had already transmuted that experience into art: her temporary disfigurement was captured in a series of rare self-portraits. She liked to create uncanny studio models and was photographed sitting beside a life-size dummy that resembled herself but twisted, like a misremembering.
“I’m not trying to make things beautiful, that’s not particularly interesting,” Rego said, “and I expect I would find things beautiful that others find ugly.”