From criticism of dictatorship in her native Portugal in the 60s to the 90s abortion series and Dog Women, Paula Rego’s subjects are as relevant today as ever. As Obedience and Defiance, her first UK retrospective in two decades, opens, she talks about her work and what inspires her. By Juliet Rix
Paula Rego is not necessarily thought of as a political artist. With so much of her work drawing on stories – folk tales, myth and characters from literature (sometimes in surreal combinations) – her reputation is more for subverted narrative than protest. But her art has been political from the start.
Born in Lisbon in 1935, Rego grew up under the fascist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. Her father secretly printed anti-government leaflets, and paintings such as Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960) made Rego’s own views on the subject riskily clear. Her enlightened father sent his only child to England to finish her education and supported her against her headmistress in her desire to go to art school. She attended the Slade in the 1950s, alongside Frank Auerbach and David Hockney.
Image: Portrait of Paula Rego, 2019
Photography: © Nick Willing, 2019