When Paula Rego brought her stories to Hastings
In May 2017, a documentary film was made for the BBC, by Nick Willing, the son of Paula Rego and Victor Willing, which revealed for the first time, in Paula Rego’s own words, how her life had impacted on her art, Paula Rego, Secrets and Stories. Following this film, the Jerwood Gallery (now Hastings Contemporary), held a major exhibition of her work, showing a large amount of new material for the first time.
For me, having been a volunteer at the Gallery, since moving to the area in 2013, the exhibition was a revelation. I must confess, rather ashamedly, that her work had mostly passed me by until then, but when I walked into the gallery that first day of the exhibition, I was smitten. Here was a unique vision of the world, forged through pain and trauma. But despite the darkness in much of her work, there is also, paradoxically, a radiant humour that shines through, a ray of hope that lifts the spirits, as you walk through the exhibition.
Paula Rego’s life has been well documented, from her childhood in Portugal growing up under the oppressive dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, to her arrival in England aged 17 to study at Slade School of Art, her subsequent marriage to the artist Victor Willing and his tragic decline and death as a result of Multiple Schlerosis; finally Paula’s well deserved recognition as one of the great figurative artists of the late 20th and early 21st century.
However, for me, it is ultimately her art which defines Paula Rego and, in this exhibition, she demonstrated this, having produced an exciting series of relatively new work, based on books or stories that had made an impact on her life. These stories, which formed the mainstay of this exhibition in the large Foreshore Gallery, consisted of 2 or 3 large scale pictures for each story, mostly in Rego’s favourite medium, Pastel, all in vibrant colours.
These pictures, with echoes of myths, folk tales and Old Master paintings are laced with characters, who display a mixture of humour, sadness, evil and innocence – all human life is on show here.
There were 4 stories, which Rego illustrated, ‘The Relic’ and ‘Cousin Basilio’ both based on 19th century novels by the Portuguese writer Eça de Querios, ‘The Boy Who Loved the Sea’, a contemporary Portuguese novel by Helia Correia and finally ‘The Last King of Portugal’, the true story of how the last King of Portugal had to escape for his life and ending up in the suburbs of London.
The 2 books by Eça de Querios are essentially morality tales, full of avarice, hypocrisy, misogyny and lust and it is not difficult to see why Paula Rego, the artist of human frailty, was drawn to these books.
The Relic is a comic novel, revolving around a dissolute young man hoping to inherit his religious aunt’s fortune, by pretending to be pious. Inevitably, his plans are scuppered by a farcical mix up, where instead of giving his aunt a gift from his travels, he gives her a negligee from a prostitute.
In the below picture the nephew Teodirico meets the prostitute Adelia for the first time. She lies on the couch looking exhausted after their encounter, surrounded by various onlookers.
In the final picture of the series, Teodirico is undone, clutching the negligee looking totally chastened, whilst his aunt points an accusing finger at him, the title of this this image, full of humour, says it all “Get out of here, you and your Filth”.
Cousin Basilio is a dark story of bourgeois marital infidelity and blackmail; in the picture below there is plenty going on, the husband Jorge is lazing on the couch, whilst his wife Luiza dreams of her lover, Cousin Basilio, who is due to arrive at the house, when Jorge is away on business. The maid, presumably the blackmailer, looks on taking in the whole scene, while the large portrait of Jorge’s mother, hanging on the wall, looks on menacingly.
The story, which gives the Exhibition its title, is a dark story full of child abuse, cruelty, sadness and the childhood hope of something better in this world, which is represented by the sea. The boy in question believes his father is the sea and in order to escape his awful life he runs away, but dies when he reaches the sea “The sky was blue, the sea was blue and the boy was also blue…because he was dead”.
The story that made the biggest impression on me was the true story of the Last King of Portugal, also known as Manuel the Unfortunate, a story that also had enormous significance for Paula Rego. Manuel was crowned the King of Portugal in 1908, following the assassination of his Father and Brother, but in 1910 he had to flee for his life after a Republican revolution. Manuel and his Mother Queen Amelia fled in a small boat into exile, from the tiny fishing village of Ericeira, eventually ending up in England. Paula Rego had spent a lot of her childhood in Ericeira and had lived there for a time with Victor and their daughter, so this place had a special significance for her. The picture below shows Manuel escaping in a small rowing boat, cradling his elderly Mother, with crowds of people watching on from the top of the cliff.
A photograph taken of the actual event, shows an almost identical scene, the only difference being the rather larger boats. Paul Rego, in her picture, uses artistic licence to create a more intimate and emotionally satisfying scene.
Manuel lived for many years in Fulwell Park, a glorious mansion, near Twickenham in South West London, which was sadly later demolished to make way for suburban housing. Manuel’s great passions were Portuguese literature, opera and tennis. Although fit and healthy, having played tennis the day before, on the 2nd July 1932, Manuel was taken ill with a bad throat and died a few hours later.
The official cause of death was oedema of the throat, a swelling which blocks the air passage, however there has always been suspicions around his sudden death and rumours abounded that he had been poisoned. These suspicions were fuelled by the fact that in 1931 an intruder had been discovered in the grounds of Fulwell Park who, when arrested, was confirmed as being a prominent member of a Portuguese republican terrorist group. The true facts will never be known.
Below is a photograph of Manuel taken a few hours before he died, looking hale and hearty. He could have died of an allergic reaction, but a sudden death feels rather unlikely when looking at this man. I lived in this area of South West London for 27 years and it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely setting for Regicide than this middle class leafy suburb, but stranger things have happened.
In Paula Rego’s interpretation, Manuel is lying in his bed clutching his throat in agony, while his maid stares impassively at him, clutching something in her hand. Her expression is ambiguous and even more so with the reflection in the mirror, a technique that Paula Rego uses to good effect in many of her pictures. There can be no doubt that something bad is going on here.
This painting also had a big impact on my son-in-law, when he visited the exhibition. As a result he was moved to write an excellent poem of the incident, which with his permission I am publishing here.
Manuel, The Unfortunate
(after Paula Rego’s Last King of Portugal)
Both sides of the story of your death
involve striped pyjamas, a maid, and the deep rich red
of your bedroom wallpaper. Was your outpost
at Fulwell, Twickenham, private and secure enough
to keep at bay those Republican activists
who might by various means have poisoned you?
Or can we assume you over-exerted yourself
one too many times at tennis, and in so doing
activated some hereditary bronchial condition,
hitherto undetected, with fatal consequence?
None at Scotland Yard had strength or means
to piece together the evidence either way.
Goodnight, sweet prince.
Let acrylic, graphite and pastel on paper
mounted on aluminium be your epitaph.
Published with kind permission of William Kemp (copyright)
These series of stories, show the influence of Old Master paintings on Paula Rego’s later style, following a period as artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, and I can see echoes of Velasquez in some of the characters.
Paula Rego, in her career, has never shied away from controversy, highlighting women’s issues, misogyny and abortion. Her shocking series of abortion pictures played an important part in the campaign to legalise abortion in Portugal. In this exhibition, a number of Works on paper from her ‘Depression’ series created in 2007 were on show. These works, which were exhibited for the first time in 2017, show that Rego is not afraid to expose her soul to the world. She has made no secret of her struggles with her mental health over the years, which make these works all the more poignant and moving.
What hasn’t been mentioned is Paula Rego’s superb draughtmanship and this can be seen in her lithographs and etchings illustrating classic novels such as Jane Eyre, Peter Pan and children’s nursery rhymes. Of course, Rego always puts her own twist on things and there are always a number of challenging images, such as the grotesque mermaid drowning Wendy.
Her illustrations for Jane Eyre are equally disturbing, showing scenes of misogyny, male dominance and abuse, giving a feminist perspective to this well known work, long before the ‘MeToo’ movement.
Not long before the exhibition, Paula a suffered a very bad fall on a concrete path, causing serious bruises and nasty cuts, but in her typical way she used the situation to produce a series of quickly executed self portraits. There is complete honesty and a total lack of self pity in these portraits, which are also full of life and humour and demonstrate that even in old age, Paula, has not lost any of her edge.
Over many years as an artist, Paula Rego has changed her method of working, and today works almost exclusively in her studio, using her long term friend and assistant, Lila, as a life model and, in more recent years, utilising a large number of props and what she calls her dollies, models of all types, which she constructs in paper-mache. These models have become works of art in their own right. Below can be seen some of the dollies on show during the exhibition and Paula, in her studio, together with her grotesque mermaid dollies.
No article about Paula Rego would be complete without mentioning Victor Willing, who since his untimely early death has been somewhat overshadowed by his wife, as her fame has grown. Victor Willing was a fantastic artist in his own right and, in my opinion, has been sadly neglected. Hastings Contemporary have attempted to remedy that with a major exhibition of his work in 2020 and we were able to appreciate the quality of his art and what he might have achieved, if his health hadn’t declined, resulting in his relatively early death.
Despite many years of exile from her homeland and the controversies of past times, Paula Rego, is now regarded as a National Treasure in Portugal and, in 2009, a dedicated museum was built in her honour in Cascais, where she had spent much time as a child called ‘The Paula Rego House of Stories’ housing both art by herself and her late husband Victor Willing.
At the time of writing this article, Hastings Contemporary (formerly Jerwood Gallery) is about to celebrate its first 10 years as an Art Gallery in Hastings. For much of that time, I have also been part of that journey, working as a volunteer for a few hours a month. During these years, much great art has flowed through the gallery attracting visitors, both locally and from further afield. The Paula Rego exhibition was a superb show and definitely one of the high points of the first 10 years.
Hastings Contemporary has become part of what has been known as The Coastal Art Trail, a ring of cultural highlights running though Kent, East and West Sussex including the Turner Contemporary in Margate, Hastings Contemporary, De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne and further along the coast, the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Art is flourishing and regenerating the South East Coast of England, long may it continue.