The drawings by Paula Rego that reveal her powerful imagination

Paula Rego, Les Enfants et leurs histoires, 1989. Paula Rego, Les Enfants et leurs histoires, 1989. Sold for €1,276 via Piasa (June 2014).

As an institution of British and Portuguese art, Paula Rego (1935-2022) invited viewers into her world of spellbinding, taboo-busting art for over a half century. She created worlds rich in symbolism, drama, comedy, and fantasy with her vivid and bold pastel paintings that even influenced a change in law. But it’s in the sketches and drawings by Paula Rego that one can see the roots of her remarkable draughtsmanship and imagination.

“We interpret the world through stories… everybody makes in their own way sense of things, but of you have stories it helps,” Paula Rego.

Paula Rego’s studio, 2007

Paula Rego’s studio, 2007 (image via Wikimedia Commons).

“Beautiful grotesque” is how Paula Rego describes her own artwork and her intoxicating, sometimes unsettling mix of emotion has ensured that her radical art bristles with feeling, as seemingly cute and charming images reveal their dark heart and an underlying horror that has encapsulated viewers for decades.

Filled with symbolism, Rego has created a world of fantasy, comedy, and drama with a range of cartoonish characters that have been twisted to subvert what first appears to be a fairytale-like scene to carry shocking and exciting messages of empowerment, feminism, war, and honor killing.

And, while her paintings in pastels have made a household name who has been honored by the Queen as a Dame, and the prestigious Military Order of Saint James of the Sword in her native Portugal, it’s her sketches and drawings that jump with the power of Rego’s convictions and feelings, before they have the fairytale veneer of pastels is applied to them.

Abortion series

If a measure of the cultural impact of Paula Rego’s work was needed then her abortion series, which depicts women in the aftermath of illegal abortions, not only brought public attention to what was largely a taboo subject in predominantly catholic Portugal, but incredibly it’s also been credited with influencing a public to campaign in 2007 that led to abortion being legalised in Portugal. “It was thrilling to do those pictures, because they were true. Not nice or polite, but true,” said Rego

Art had rarely touched upon such subjects, particularly in Portugal at this time, so her dazzlingly confrontational series made an impact as powerful statement art, as well as a piece of social commentary that made for uncomfortable viewing, evoking feelings of love, power, and cruelty. “Fear and pain and danger of an illegal abortion, which is what desperate women have always resorted to. It’s very wrong to criminalise women on top of everything else,” explained Rego.

Peter Pan

Paula Rego’s art has taken on many forms during her career. What started out as a more abstract has evolved into a representational style as her career has progressed. She was also an exhibiting member of the London Group, along with David Hockney and Frank Auerbach, after moving to England from Portugal. This might inspire an element of pretention in some, but Rego has always been happy to draw inspiration from popular culture, including Peter Pan. The famous characters aren’t as you’d expect though and positioned in confrontational situations that occasionally highlight the feminist perspective and always marry a darkness with the fairytale story.

“I’ve always taken great pleasure from things that aren’t supposed to be art,” explained Rego. “There’s a snobbishness that acts as a censor. I’ve always liked cartoons for instance, and Disney films and many illustrators.”

Folkloric influence

Folklore has been a frequent feature in Rego’s paintings, but typically for the artist unhindered by confrontation, it’s not the cute folklore of children’s stories. Instead it’s traditional folklore with a focus on scary and unsettling scenes that appear to expose unconscious or buried desires and feelings.

Rego’s interpretation of folklore has a personal feeling that at times appears to reflect her strident support of feminism, as well her own fears in art that builds narratives of both trouble and fantasy. Rego has documented her own mental health challenges and battles with depression, and in 1973, she started to see a Jungian therapist regularly to help cope with her depression, which is potentially reflected in her vivid sketches.

Sinister shadows

Throughout her career Rego has made the darkness conscious and brought difficult and taboo subjects out of the shadows and into the light. Having grown up under the shadow of a fascist regime of the Estado Novo party in Portugal, the practise of placing subtext in her art was a familiar one.  

Paula Rego, Baying.

Paula Rego, Baying. Sold for £558,100 via Sotheby’s (February 2008).

“I paint the women I know. I paint what I see. I make women the protagonists because I am one,” said Rego in an interview ahead of a retrospective of her career at Tate Britain, London. “It is more interesting to paint women as they are.”

An underlying metaphorical darkness of grief can be seen in her Dog Woman series that deals with grief following the death of her husband, but shadow also plays a literal part in her monochrome drawings with a similar devastating effect. Where sinister elements are hinted at, Rego also literally highlighted a menacing darkness in her Wild Duck etching that turns a sweet scene of a little girl on a man’s knee into a ominous proposition thanks to the looming presence of men in the shadows, creating a powerful and imposing image.

Women’s work

While styles may have changed and feelings of grief and happiness come and go, one constant at the hand of Paula Rego is the presence of women. Usually these are in gutsy paintings that aren’t concerned with formalities and full of rage and pain.

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