CR Muse: The Dark Fantasies of Paula Rego

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Classic fairy tales often incorporate magic, beauty, and nostalgia, but most have a darkness to them—an undercurrent of danger and violence disguised as justice or a “lesson.” It’s these darker aspects that pique the interest—and have fueled the career—of Paula Rego. The Portuguese-British artist’s unique vision draws from well-known stories as well as aspects of her own life, with ominous themes that both intrigue and unsettle viewers.

As a child, she was left in the care of her grandparents while her parents were in England for her father’s work. Thanks to her grandmother and other elder women in her life, Rego’s childhood was filled with fairy tales and Portuguese folk stories. „My favorite themes are power games and hierarchies,” she has explained. “I always want to turn things on their heads, to upset the established order, to change heroines and idiots.” Her work is ambiguous, the figures simultaneously villains and victims. Naturally, her unique take has garnered her a wide fan base. But despite being one of the most important living artists and receiving numerous accolades around the world, Rego didn’t actual find mass acclaim until later in life.

Rego was born in 1934 in Lisbon. She began studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1953 under Lucian Freud. There, she met her future husband, painter Victor Willing. Willing’s behavior when they met was controversial at best—even their son even says so—not to mention he was married at the time. Regardless, Rego fell for him anyway. Willing left his first wife after Rego became pregnant, and in 1959, the pair were married. They went on to have two more children and spent their lives going back and forth between Portugal and England. All the while she continued to paint, becoming the only female member of the London Group, a group of painters in the 1960s that also included David Hockney.

After Willing’s death in 1988, Rego threw herself into her work. In 1990, she was appointed to England’s National Gallery as an associate artist. She produced several series of works that have become some of her best-known. She skewered Disney princesses like Snow White and had her own take on ballerinas, creating figures far more aggressive than Edgar Degas’ portrayals. Her „Dog Woman“ series shows women in a feral manner, focusing on the animalistic motions and emotions of humanity. Interestingly, the woman who posed for these paintings was the nurse who cared for her husband at the end of his life.

Despite working in the realm of the fantasy, Rego never shied away from real-world issues, even turning political. In 1998, she produced the „Abortion Series“ as a way of supporting a proposed law change in Portugal at the time.

At 83, Rego’s career is as strong as ever. In 2010, she was made a Dame of the British Empire. She also continues to hold exhibits of her work. In fact, her most recent show, held at the Musée de l’Orangerie, closed earlier this month.

If there’s one guiding message in all of Rego’s work, it is that it’s all about perspective. There is another way to look at every story. A centuries-long narrative can be turned on its head, as can our beliefs. Her visions may be dark, but if one looks closely enough, there is often darkness hiding in plain sight. If there is a greater lesson to learn, it is from Rego herself: There is no expiration date for success and recognition. Creative power is a lifelong trait.

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