“I always know the people in my pictures. Very often they take the form of monkeys and bears and all sorts of things. It’s easier if you make them into animals because you can do things to animals that you can’t do to people because it’s too shocking.”
P aula Rego, who has died, aged 87, will be remembered for a great many things - being an artist of rare wit and skill, a shrewd observer of the human condition, a master of figuration and surrealism and an impassioned storyteller, whose work imaginatively addressed the sharper end of life. Feted for her idiosyncratic outlook and fiercely-articulated opinions, she was not only a law unto herself, but an inspiration for countless artists and collectors, all drawn to the darkness and light, flat bleakness and strange joy, that somehow, all collides in her canvases. "No artist has brought me to tears, mid-gallery, like Paula Rego," says critic and author Hettie Judah. "The righteousness, the pain, the vengeful fury, the sadness bound up in her paintings is devastating. She had a burning sense of injustice, and of the cruelties done to (and sometimes by) women in the name of love. Her paintings are the product of a life felt intensely."
"No artist has brought me to tears, mid-gallery, like Paula Rego... her paintings are the product of a life felt intensely."
Over the years, Sotheby's has been proud to include a number of Paula Rego's drawings and paintings in highly-successful sales worldwide, including 1988's masterpiece The Cadet and His Sister, which sold in 2015 for £1.4m (an artist's record). Here, we revisit three key works sold at Sotheby's, and republish our specialists' original catalogue essays for each, in tribute to the wealth of themes, stories and ideas that pulsate within Paula Rego's extraordinary art.
THE CADET AND HIS SISTER (1988)
(Sold at Sotheby's in July 2015 for an artist's record of £1,145,000)
The Cadet and his Sister is a psychologically charged work by the impassioned painter of ‘stories’ Paula Rego. Executed in 1988 the work dates from a seminal turning point in the artist’s idiosyncratic practice. Catapulted onto the international art scene that same year, Paula Rego was taken on by Marlborough Fine Art, London and honoured with a major retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Concurrently this was the year that Rego’s beloved husband, the revered British artist Victor Willing, passed away. As a cathartic distraction against the emotional darkness of this personal tragedy Rego painted some of the most ambitious works of her career, including, The Departure (1988), The Maids (1988) and The Cadet And His Sister. Moving away from the flat, graphic surfaces of her earlier depictions, the artist introduced shadow and volume into these large-scale figurative paintings. Imbuing her work with a heightened sense of reality, Rego depicted subjects inspired by real people. Herein, the male figure in both the present work and The Departure is based on Ron Mueck, Rego’s son-in-law. Invested with intense personal sentiment The Cadet and his Sister is a deeply human and poignant painting that deals with the painful subject of a sad farewell.
In a scene of an impending departure, a young cadet is preparing to leave for his military service. His sister has knelt down beside him to tie his shoelaces. Her handbag and gloves are placed at her side, whilst a small cockerel flanks the young boy. With an azure blue sky that recalls the Portuguese Azulejo tiles, the composition is bathed in the warm light of the Mediterranean. Stark architectural linearity, long shadows and an empty tree-lined avenue conjure the Surrealist scenes of Giorgio de Chirico. On first glance the work tells the tale of a caring relationship between two siblings. However, permeated with allegorical references and symbolism it is a multi-layered narrative, where nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
"Permeated with allegorical references and symbolism, it is a multi-layered narrative, where nothing is as straightforward as it seems..."
The underlying symbolic complexities of the work are most pertinently outlined by the artist herself: "I wanted the young man to be slightly younger than his sister, possibly thirteen and she’d be like fifteen, and she’s more knowing than he is and he’s depending on her quite a lot... I very much wanted that avenue going up and disappearing into the distance, a bit like a theatrical backdrop. And the sky is meant to be like a sky from my catechism book. And then the props were very important. Her bag had to be brown like that, and lined in red. I mean it had to be dangerous, as if it could snap shut. Both it and the gloves are like – I suppose it’s pretty obvious – but like sex symbols. But opposites. And the cockerel is small and puffed up, and a pretend one, a porcelain one; so it shows he’s impotent, the poor cadet. And it’s a lesson you see – a lesson for us and also a lesson between the two of them. It’s about accepting fate; accepting the way things are; in a nice sort of way. It’s not an unhappy picture at all” (Paula Rego quoted in: John McEwen, Paula Rego, London 1992, p. 166). Two years later Rego elaborated upon this with a somewhat unnerving explanation: “It’s about incest. They have just made love. She dresses him. He is going away to do his military service. The cock is his masculinity. The handbag is her femininity. It’s a container but it snaps shut. It could castrate him. The gloves have various connotations – a surgeon, a gardener, a butcher. The walls are abrupt and the avenue seems false, like a backdrop. Or if it is real it is a dead-end – incest leads nowhere. His future is destroyed. She will control him forever” (Paula Rego quoted in: ibid., p. 167).
"It’s about accepting fate; accepting the way things are; in a nice sort of way. It’s not an unhappy picture at all”
An ambiguous tale of control and domination, love and loss that offers some of Rego's unique repertoire of black humour and emotive potency, The Cadet and his Sister is a pertinent work by this venerated chronicler of human drama. As a candid storyteller, Rego has never been afraid to upend traditions and explore disquieting facets of human nature with a unique emotional honesty and frankness. Through a pertinent use of metaphor and association her works evoke voluminous emotions and narratives and have been widely recognised as incisive portraits of human existence.
LOOKING OUT (1997)
(Sold at Sotheby's in July 2015 for £965,000)
Executed in 1997, Paula Rego’s Looking Out is a paradigmatic example of the artist’s powerful Father Amaro series, which subtly fuses delight and menace in equal measure to explore the grand themes of lust, faith and femininity. Inspired by the lustrous materiality of two paintings by the Spanish seventeenth-century master Bartolomé Estéban Murillo at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, Two Peasant Boys and a Negro Boy and Invitation to the Game of Pelota, Rego became enthralled by the concept of creating her own costume drama. The nationally revered novel O Crime do Padre Amaro (The Sin of Father Amaro) by the nineteenth century Portuguese writer, Eça de Queirós, was to provide the perfect muse for this drama. Indeed, an overriding passion for storytelling and a deep-seated conviction that it remains the role of serious paintings to do so, is what truly sets Rego’s art apart from her contemporaries.
"An overriding passion for storytelling and a deep-seated conviction that it remains the role of serious paintings to do so, is what truly sets Rego’s art apart from her contemporaries."
In 1998, Rego was invited by the Dulwich Picture Gallery to exhibit this formidable new series alongside the very works by Murillo that sparked her imagination, in a show that was hailed by critic John McEwen as “the best contemporary show in town in the oldest and most charming of our public galleries”. Indicative of the importance of Looking Out within this thought-provoking series, it was prominently illustrated on the front cover of the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
Published in 1876 to great controversy and banned until only fairly recently for its anti-clerical nature, O Crime do Padre Amaro was the first and most personal novel by the great Eça de Queirós. A tale of provincial claustrophobia, corruption of the clergy and society’s oppressive attitude towards women, O Crime do Padre Amaro represents something of a Portuguese Madame Bovary. It tells the story of a young man Amaro Vieira, who, struggling to find a true vocation, is pushed into priesthood, landing a job in a small cathedral town of Leiria. Here he finds board with a widow and her comely daughter Amelia, whose affections he soon wins. Although already engaged to another man, João Eduardo, the pair start on a clandestine affair, which results in Amelia falling pregnant. Disastrous for our heroine, Amelia is forced to isolate herself in the countryside to have the child in secret and to avoid bringing further shame upon her family. Tragically both mother and child die in childbirth and at the end of the novel Amaro is left just as he was when we first met him: completely alone. Speaking of her decision to depict O Crime do Padre, Rego expands “I chose a very Portuguese novel because I felt I needed a social activity rather than the stuff you find in folk tales. The Sin of Father Amaro is critical of society, very well observed and delicious to read, but above all it is a love story, I am always immensely moved by it. My father greatly admired this book at the time when it was still banned. These pictures are a homage to him” (Paula Rego quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Paula Rego, 1998, n.p.).
"Inhabiting an eerie world that is charged with a brooding air and heady eroticism, 'Looking Out' is Rego at her very finest"
Looking Out is the first painting where we meet our protagonist Amelia. Posed for by Rego’s collaborator Lila Nunes, here Amelia is depicted alone, wistfully looking out of a small window with her hand pressed to her cheek, confined by the claustrophobic grey walls of the room. She is a timeless image of frustration, entrapment, a woman seeking deliverance. As is characteristic of Rego’s approach to storytelling, Looking Out does not illustrate a specific scene in the novel, rather it could be Amelia at several points: in the present work Rego presents her constant condition. Perhaps it is a scene early on where she is lovingly looking out of her window for Amaro to rescue her from the confines of bourgeois life, or we may find ourselves later on in the story where she is desperately searching for her former fiancé so she may escape her fate of shame and ultimately death that awaits her. True to the spirit of O Crime do Padre Amaro, where Amelia's clothes feed Amaro's repressed desires, in Looking Out Amelia’s lavishly applied garments have been meticulously wrought in small, tense hatchings with satin and lace bustling together and so adding to the overwhelming sense of provincial suffocation that suffuses both painting and novel. Inhabiting an eerie world that is charged with a brooding air and heady eroticism, Looking Out is Rego at her very finest. It is the perfect exploration of love, lust and womanhood that is not only the life fuel of Eça’s O Crime do Padre but Rego’s oeuvre as a wider whole.
GOOD DOG (1994)
(Sold at Sotheby's in November 2021 for £1,188,700)
Seminal amidst the strikingly expressive works of Paula Rego's most important and highly renowned series Dog Women, the seductive use of gestural and narrative experimentation in Good Dog is the summation of this much-celebrated cycle in which figures are bestialised to embody a heavily-loaded metaphor of womanhood. Good Dog is a particularly tender and beautiful example of the series – an antithesis to the snarling power of the earlier Bad Dog, and a foil for the queasy sexuality manifest in Bride, now held in the permanent collection of the Tate. Both poignantly honest and deeply moving, the present work is a masterful example of the unmatched emotive potency and symbolic intensity of this artist’s oeuvre.
Rego began work on the Dog Woman series in 1994, triggered by a fairy tale the artist had been told by a Portuguese friend about an old woman who was living alone with her pets in a house surrounded by winding sand dunes; driven mad by the continued isolation and the sounds made by the wind whistling through the chimney, the crazed protagonist proceeds to devour her pets in an act of deranged frustration. This tale returned to the artist during a drawing session with her long-term model and valued muse Lila Nunes, when Rego asked Nunes to go into a snarling squat. “I recreated Lila’s pose in front of a mirror, squatting down and snarling, one foreshortened knee swelling out,” Rego explains, recalling the genesis of this remarkable group of works, “I think the physicality of the picture came from my turning myself into an animal in this way; but I had to have a face, so I asked Lila to be the model” (Paula Rego cited in: John McEwen, Paula Rego, London 1997, p. 212). Narrative is central to Rego's canon and the Dog Women evoke a long tradition of mythology. However, far from conventional storytelling, Rego goes beyond merely illustrating a narrative, instead projecting her own stories gleaned from memory and imagination.
"Despite her seemingly subservient position, the figure succeeds in exerting a sense of commanding authority over her surroundings, resulting in a tender and a serene composition"
Gazing at the stars and flanked by a herd of sheep, the complex pastel character at the centre of Good Dog adopts a disarmingly animalistic pose, her legs tucked up beneath her, neck cocked back and staring into the night sky, reminiscent of a dog craving approval from its owner. Yet, despite her seemingly subservient position, the figure succeeds in exerting a sense of commanding authority over her surroundings, resulting in a tender and a serene composition that stands out from the other works in the series. Diametrically opposed to the earlier, more visceral painting Bad Dog (1994), Good Dog is its more intimate, cathartic and revealing counterpart, marking the heartfelt conclusion of the Dog Women series in a picture that bears witness to the emotional candour of Rego’s personal experience, painfully coming to terms with the grief and loneliness following the loss of her husband, acclaimed British painter Victor Willing, in 1988.
At the same time, the Dog Women series announced an abrupt change of scale, pace and emphasis in the artist’s work, as Rego started to refine her recent change in technical direction. Working on large-scale pastels, altogether redefining the limits of her creative process, the artist adopted a medium that adeptly facilitates her idiosyncratically urgent, malleable and emotive technique. The surface texture of Good Dog, at once evincing both waxy and chalky qualities, has been endlessly plied by Rego to reveal the corporeal character of her subject. The solidity of the central figure’s form is distinctly palpable and visceral through the heavily worked, built-up layers of dense, almost sculptural pastel. Rego’s use of pastel is astonishingly painterly in effect, conveying an almost rugged texture and a sensation of primal physicality. “With pastel you don't have the brush between you and the surface. Your hand is making the picture,” the artist elaborates, “It's almost like being a sculptor. You are actually making the person. It's very tactile [...] and there's a lot of physical strength involved because it's overworked, masses and masses of layers changed all the time. It takes a lot of strength” (Paula Rego cited in: John McEwen, Paula Rego, London 1997, p. 215).
"Good Dog is a highly emblematic work within Rego’s oeuvre, exuding an impressive sense of sculptural solidity and form"
Good Dog is a highly emblematic work within Rego’s oeuvre, exuding an impressive sense of sculptural solidity and form, while capturing both the artist’s enigmatic and exuberant painterly iconography as well as her interest in popular narratives and the dramatic existential battles they represent. Ultimately, in its superb drawing together of the major central themes and tenets of the Dog Woman series, Good Dog can be considered as one of the most remarkable and striking examples of this highly important body of work. A richly layered visual narrative that perfectly encapsulates Rego’s exceptional draughtsmanship and inventiveness, it affirms the artist’s peerless talent to transfer the winding and twisting subtleties of her psyche onto canvas, placing her firmly at the forefront of contemporary figurative painting.