Psychoanalysis has studied the cruelty of children’s stories: Paula Rego embodied it. The Portuguese-born artist, who became English and named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2010, died at the age of 87 on June 8 in London.

Born Maria Paula Figueiroa Rego, in Lisbon, on January 26, 1935, she was the only child of a wealthy family. A former engineer at Marconi in England, his father had created, back in Portugal, an electrical accessories company. He had, like Paula Rego’s mother and grandmother, but for diametrically opposed reasons, a crucial role in her daughter’s youth. The two women, in accordance with the prejudices of their time, taught Paula submission. The father, grand bourgeois as he was in a country locked down by the Salazar dictatorship and the omnipresence, even in government, of the Catholic Church, was anticlerical and liberal. It was he who, finding the Portuguese atmosphere oppressive for a young girl, sent her to study in London.

She followed there between 1952 and 1956 the courses of the famous Slade School of Fine Art (with traditional but complete teaching), brilliantly, it seems, since she obtained at the end of her course the Summer Prize, the prize end of the year for her promotion, a reward of which she admitted retrospectively being the most proud, she who had received many others. There she met a young painter, Victor – known as Vic – Willing (1928-1988), who, after many adventures that morality, today more than yesterday, reproves, became her husband. He was handsome, talented (he was still at school, which he was already exhibiting at the mythical Hanover Gallery, where Erica Brausen had shown Giacometti, Bacon or Freud), but weak-willed, womanizer and sometimes violent: she was, all her life, madly in love.

Intimate dramas

Many unwanted pregnancies ensued, and the related clandestine abortions too: the thing was then prohibited in Great Britain. These intimate dramas were later a driving force in the work of Paula Rego, who devoted to them some of the most powerful paintings that it is possible to paint, and to look at. Deciding to carry one of her pregnancies to term, she assumed the then hated status of unmarried mother (Vic did not marry her until later) and returned to raise her child in Portugal: there she became aware of the oppression of the regime of Salazar and began a series of politically engaged paintings and collages. As they were also very abstract, they essentially escaped censorship…

The figure gradually emerged in his work, marked, like his abstraction for the rest, by a surrealist vein. But what remained fundamental in his work, whatever its nature, was the predominance of a story. His son, director Nick Willing, recalled him again at the opening of the exhibition currently dedicated to him at the Picasso Museum in Malaga: “To make a painting, my mother needs to start from a story. It could be a news item, a novel or a play, but most often the inspiration came to him from one of those tales his grandmother told him, or from nursery rhymes, those popular children’s songs. in his adopted country.

However, for those who want to examine them closely, they are incredibly cruel. This is also a big part of the fascination they exert. When they are restored in image by the incision of the engraving, or the precision of the pastel as she practiced it, they become of an uncommon evocative force. And when she relies, without any pastiche, on the old masters, like Goya, Hogarth or Degas, she touches on great art. His native country was not mistaken when it dedicated to him during his lifetime, in 2009 in Cascais, near Lisbon, a museum containing quite a few paintings but a few masterpieces, numerous drawings and an impressive collection of engravings. It is called the “House of the stories of Paula Rego”: she had so much to tell.