I had been living in Glasgow for about six months when I went to see the Paula Rego exhibition over in Edinburgh, titled Obedience and Defiance. I was reviewing it for a magazine, and taking the chance to see two friends, Sam and Miranda, at the same time. I’d met them through other friends during the Fringe Festival that summer, and they had recently moved in together. It was November now, and I had also just started seeing someone new, following a long period of personal turmoil. I had become a mother and a divorcee in the space of a few years; I had lost my father. I had been torturing myself with the ghosts of boyfriends past — and friends, and my dad, and any other demon who would take up the invitation to play havoc with my head.
Rego’s work had always drawn me in, though I had never seen any of it in the flesh. I remembered the first works I had come across, though — a series of illustrations of dark fairy tales, when I was a teenager — and since then I had returned to her work routinely with a sense of uncanny comfort. She spoke — or drew — in a language I recognised innately and primally. She wove fables and religion and bodies and sexuality all together, creating these oppressive, heroic, somehow liberating scenes.
I was in a fog the day I took the train over to Edinburgh, as I was most days then, and despite many coffees was no less dazed when I met Sam and Miranda in the museum. We hugged and walked into the first room, catching up as we looked at her early work. We had only been standing there for about three minutes, however, when an irate man interrupted us, eyes bulging. “Excuse me!” he bellowed, a few inches from my face. “Will you please stop talking! I am TRYING to HEAR the PAINTINGS!” Sam burst out laughing, and then quickly corrected himself. “Oh,” he said. “You’re not joking.” No, he was not! His aggression was entirely intentional. A middle-aged man loudly trying to silence us. I tried to contain my fury, turning to laughter with Sam and Miranda instead, as we left. But really! Here was an entire exhibition about hitting back against the oppressive moods and egos of men, and it was playing out right in front of us. It felt like a sort of sacrilege that he was even here. But also a joke.
We went upstairs, anyway, to find Rego’s Dog Woman series — works produced over the course of her career, from the drawing Dog Woman (1952), made the year Rego entered the Slade School of Art, and met her partner, painter Vic Willing, to Sleeper (1994), one of her first pastel works, in which a woman lies on her master’s jacket like a sleeping dog. Throughout these works, which marked not only different stages in her career, but also in her life and particularly her turbulent, complex relationship with her husband, the central themes of obedience and defiance were clear and vindicating. They gave me fire, lit me up, elevated something within.
Having grown up under the strict and oppressive fascist regime of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, I wrote down in my notes, in which the state and the Catholic Church worked complicitly to control their subjects (especially women), Rego’s work consistently and defiantly addressed complex power dynamics in various intersecting areas, whether through the prism of personal, romantic relationships or through overtly political issues such as war and political exile. In her Dog Woman series, she used the image and mannerisms of dogs to explore the nuances and complexities of these power dynamics.
Sometimes a master, sometimes the obedient dog-like creature, Rego’s characters equated female and male sexualities and other behaviours to the characteristics of dogs, and in their associations with one another, and other overt motifs from political discourse and Portuguese folklore, she connected these seemingly distinct issues. Was the master her husband or the Church? The king or her mother? Her own sexuality? Her characters, regardless of their roles, dominated us all with the same compelling combination of defiance and submission to their roles, their physical (often constrained) form, their closed and confusing environments. We walked around some more, taking in the domineering submissives and constrained masters. In Snare (1987), a girl in a voluminous mauve dress loomed over a dog, mocking its powerlessness and impotence. In Untitled (1986), another young girl, wearing a hairband, put a chain around the dog’s neck. Later on, women themselves resembled dogs: in Sleeper (1994), an adult woman laid in a doglike pose; it was not clear whether she has been punished or whether she takes comfort in nuzzling with her master’s jacket — or indeed, both. In Lush (1994), another woman sat openly like a dog, moody and yet unapologetic. In the Abortion Triptych (1998), women stoically endured illegal abortions out of social and financial necessity. In The Crime of Father Amaro series, a young girl is caught up in an illegal affair with a priest.
I sat down and read more about Rego’s life. She had met Vic at the Slade when she was nineteen, and he was already married. She went on to terminate several pregnancies as a student before going back to Portugal to have their daughter. They later married, after he left his wife and they reunited, and had two more children. He then developed multiple sclerosis and Rego became his carer in the later years of his life. Their roles therefore evolved in complex, difficult ways: Rego was a young lover, a “fallen woman”, a mother, a wife, a carer. Perhaps because I had just started seeing a new boyfriend and fallen in love completely and fast, reading about Rego’s complicated life felt especially prescient, and much needed. She understood the messiness of life and love, of power and submission, obedience and defiance. Life necessitated stark changes in role, I knew well — far more complex than notions of “master” and “dog” would at first glance explain. Her paintings revealed precisely this: how binaries of power dynamics were simply markers that signalled vast depths of human emotion, as we struggled to love and endure one another in wider systems of oppression.
I thought of them all, then — the ghosts and demons, the men in my life. How we struggled to love and endure one another, on whatever level. And then I couldn’t help but forgive, though I had not been trying to. I never really intended to, wasn’t sure I ever really understood the point of forgiveness. But I couldn’t hold it all against them anymore. They were people in paintings, creatures, twisted and dark and sublime. I’d shared their shadows long enough to know that much.
Though she sought to be a painter, “like a man” — an “art monster” — Rego could never escape being a woman, just as her subjects could not (and perhaps would not) escape being dogs, I wrote. Their passion is wrought from sacrifice. In Sit (1994), a pregnant woman crosses her feet, and in so doing mimics, subtly, the Crucifixion. In the series of etchings exposing the horror of female genital mutilation, Rego’s victims recall tortured saints, despite the brevity and minimalism of their production. Using these familiar motifs from religious paintings, she elevates the everyday suffering of women, recognising it and confronting it head-on, never losing the nuance, ambiguity and darkness implicit in these scenes and situations.
Rego saw the similarities between art practice and romantic relationships. “Painting is erotic,” she said, “you do it with your hand. It’s the same feeling of being possessed by desire.” In painting, as in eroticism, she was defiant, even as she was consumed. All of her characters were defiant and consumed in their situation. All of her artworks were defiant and consuming. They depicted suffering, oppression and cruelty and yet her figures consistently embraced it. There was a film showing downstairs in the gallery, and we sat down to watch it. It had been made by her son and also featured her daughter, who said of her mother that endurance of pain became a sort of proof of love. “Look how much I will bear for you,” her paintings seemed to say — and not simply to her late husband, but to life itself, and to God, despite the Church. “Look how much I must love you, to endure all this.” I thought of my new love, how he was everything, already — how quickly I felt entirely consumed by love. But in this life? It felt so fragile, and so perfect. I nuzzled into my master’s jacket, waiting for his return. The film also talked about how Rego had suffered from prolonged periods of depression, and how in those times she “drew herself out of it”. She “gave fear a face”, and in so doing she mastered it. In these images of suffering, confused desire, love and pain, Rego mastered, in a sense, these forces (and people) in the act of painting or drawing itself. She endured and expressed aggression; she was the master and the dog — to painting, to desire, to the political environments she finds herself in, often viscerally.
I walked around some more, leaving Miranda and Sam by smaller paintings, and came across Angel (1998), part of The Crime of Father Amaro series, in which Rego depicted a woman in a silk dress, in gold and silver, holding the symbols of a sword and a sponge, her hair pulled back in a dark bun. She was entirely defiant, her expression serious and yet somehow teasing, baiting. Was she asking for confrontation? Was she asking to sacrifice herself? Was she asking, after all this, for more? This was heroism, to me. This was my heroine. The Avenging Angel. Rego.
The man downstairs was not the last to take issue with us. Another paced around, then told Miranda off for taking a photo of an etching. More huffed and storm out. The men were triggered, apparently; there was a funny feeling in the air. We smiled to one another, rolled our eyes, looked the men in the eye when they complained to us, did not move. Surely Rego would enjoy this: how quickly her audience mimicked her own work, how we all submitted to her art, one way or another. How we became disciples of Rego. Later on, back in my flat, my son asleep, I went back to her work, flicking through the exhibition catalogue. Over and over again, these strong, stubborn faces, and the unconditional loyalty and love that they expressed. The purest, most visceral religion, she offered here. I could only bow to that. I wanted her religion, her heroism. To be mastered by it, freed by it. I only wanted that.
I took out my pencils and paper and kept drawing, as the months went on. I drew dark shadowy monsters, I drew friends. I drew strangers in bars, men who played on my mind. I drew the one I loved. I drew my own shadows, entangled with theirs. I drew my son. I kept drawing until I was peaceful again, like I was praying. I prayed to Paula Rego’s Avenging Angel: please watch over me, please see me, as I see you. She cut through my fear with her sword, cleansed me of that endemic shame. I slept, relaxed. I drew myself back into life, having been erased.
In Rego’s work, I had found the perfect articulation of a sense that existence and personal identity is inherently interconnected, precarious, messy, and yet loving. To be victorious amid this means becoming resilient enough to exist through an ever-changing sense of embodiment and disembodiment, where other people and events may take and dominate and disappear and turn away. It is to understand that loss — of other people and even, at times, ourselves — is part of living. We are more fluid than we admit, and so, too, more connected to everyone else.
And so, I found a way to reconcile myself to this flux. By drawing and writing, I could reappear, be visible to myself again. I found a way to articulate and visualise the pain of losing others, and how I existed with and through them, as they did through me. Art became not a solace as such, but a way to exist and emerge, a part of living, a form of strength. Drawing, and heroism, for me, was personified in Paula Rego’s Avenging Angel — a spiritual calling, a ritual as everyday and necessary as cooking and sleeping and waking, a way of life.
The Repeater Book of Heroism, from which Christiana Spens’ essay on Paula Rego is sourced, is out now.