Remembering Paula Rego

Paula Rego died on June 8 this year. Though she had no connection with Catalonia and probably never visited Barcelona, one of her best-known early paintings was Stray Dogs (The Dogs of Barcelona), a miniature in oil from 1965


The catalyst for the picture was a report in The Times about how Barcelona’s authorities had placed poisoned meat in the streets to kill hungry dogs roaming the city. The meat killed non-stray dogs, too. Even children, it was rumoured, picked up the meat. The story was denied by the Franco regime.

Rego was inspired to paint a powerful picture against the dictatorship’s “careless, offhand” disregard for animal and human life. She explained that she had a book of Romanesque paintings, in one of which Saint Jerome is having his wounds licked and healed by “kindly” dogs. She put him into the picture, along with a frieze of twisted dogs dying in pain. Flies are dotted all over the painting.

The Dogs of Barcelona also had a very personal genesis. You can find Rego explaining it in her perfect upper-class English on YouTube (type in “Paula Rego Dogs of Barcelona”). She had completed the main part of the picture, but there was a gap at the top. Wondering how to finish the painting, Rego came downstairs from her studio and found her husband and a “very beautiful Italian girl” that she and her husband knew “snogging” in the living-room. After a row, the furious Rego went back upstairs and:

I put her on top of the picture, …a monstrous figure with her tongue hanging out and her eyes popping out… The big fat lumpy thing on top is her…. Nothing to do with dogs, but something to do with dogs, because it is a monstrous creature up there.

It is a picture “full of violence and disgust and flies, you know, merda”.

I asked several elderly Barcelona friends about the story of the poisoned meat and none recalled it, which might mean that the people I asked were too young at the time or that the authorities had successfully covered up the scandal - or that the Times story was false. One friend, though, did tell me that he remembers a 1960s culling of feral cats in the Eixample, evidence at least that the Council did take action against unvaccinated, uncared-for animals.

The story of the composition of The Dogs of Barcelona is also one about the creation of art. Rego was an angry young woman living in London in exile from the Portuguese dictatorship who told a story in the painting about fascism’s disdain for human life. She was also inspired by intimate fury at her husband and the Italian girl. Public, political anger entwined with intimate anguish. And, of course, anger and rage only lead to one’s own ill health unless one has the education and skill to turn feeling into powerful images that can reach other people. As Paula Rego could.

Carer or career

Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935. Her anti-fascist, middle-class parents sent her to St. Julian’s, then the only English school in the city, to avoid the limited and oppressive education provided by the Salazar dictatorship, and then to London. In 1952, she entered the Slade Art School, winning the school’s summer composition prize in 1954. She continued to draw and paint, but her career stuttered to a halt. Then she married the painter Victor Willing, brought up three children and cared for her husband, who had developed multiple sclerosis in 1968 and died 20 years later. Unlike most women who abandon their careers to become carers, Rego subsequently found fame, erupting onto the art scene in the 1980s. She became a figurative painter: The Dogs of Barcelona is not typical of her later, more famous work.

Her paintings are angry, deriving from an anger accumulated over decades, she explained, at dictatorship, women’s oppression and her own situation. Her mother was “a casualty of the society she lived in… They encouraged women to do nothing. And the less they did, the more they were admired for it - women of a certain class, that is. Poor women had to do bloody everything.”

Rego’s art was never more political than in her 1998 series on abortion. Her visceral, unsettling depictions of back-street abortions helped change the law in Portugal: they were used in the successful 2007 referendum campaign. The impact of the female gaze combating the male gaze was clearest in her paintings of young women standing over a bucket or sitting on a bed and staring defiantly at the viewer. Rego’s abortion pictures challenge the typical soft-porn fantasies of girls looking coy and sexy. Reality is the abortion.

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