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Stories change, styles change/

Paula Rego: Stories change, styles change

Curatorship: Catarina Alfaro

13 July 2023 to 31 March 2024


The exhibition Paula Rego: Stories change, styles change brings together a series of works revealing the creative process that enabled Paula Rego to construct a unique and personal figurative territory. Here, from the very beginning of her artistic career, stories functioned as genuine realistic structures that did, however, awaken in the artist a vision which disrupted the stability or universality of some of these narratives.

During the 1960s, Paula Rego developed a personal figurative language to express her extreme emotions and sensations, with her work reflecting the complex dimension of the questions that she struggled with while growing up and at the beginning of her adult life: the rigidity of the political and social reality of a manifestly patriarchal and Catholic dictatorial regime, which brought with it sensations of fear, anxiety, aggression, rage and repressed sexuality that she felt the need to respond to or confront through her painting. Her artistic education at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, between 1952 and 1956, was decisive for her individual development through more experimental practices of figuration that explored the formal inventiveness associated with abstraction and included self-referential or autobiographical elements.

The 1980s coincided with personal, social and artistic changes that aroused in her a sense of freedom in relation to certain conventions imposed about the way of "doing art" and resulted in a reformulation of her working process. She became able through her painting to confront the emotions that swept over her, establishing a radically new visual language in order to tell her stories and creating a complex and ambiguous universe in which animals are creatures with human qualities and behaviours, being thrust into the peculiar situations and vivid dramas that noisily invade her painting.


obra Stories changePaula Rego, Prince Pig and his First Bride, 2006, from the series Prince Pig


As a result of the recognition that Paula Rego had by then achieved in the London art world, one of the most important events in her artistic journey was to take place at the beginning of the 1990s, namely her passage through the National Gallery, where she was the first artist to be invited to participate in the artistic residency programme that had been initiated in that same year. This experience resulted in the production of works that were directly related to this museum's collection, allowing herself to be guided by the old masters of painting and, through them, repositioning herself in relation to the essential questions of painting and drawing techniques. The close proximity that she enjoyed with the works from the past thus had significant repercussions on the habitual work process of this artist, who until then had claimed that her inspiration came "always from popular art, and never from the great masters".

From the 1990s until the end of her artistic career, her work methodology became increasingly complex. In the production of her paintings, there was a first moment when the characters/models were chosen in accordance with a rigorous casting process directed by the artist. When she could not find the ideal model, she created a three-dimensional "doll" materialised in accordance with the same artistic impulse. Next - and this was very important for the tactile rigour of the scene that she was creating - she chose the clothes, many of which she found in the backstage area of London theatres and in antique shops, dressing all of the participants for the narrative moment she intended to paint. Other key elements were also added to the composition: furniture and decorative objects were methodically incorporated. The characters occupied this scenographic space, intervening directly in the scene, being positioned according to their main or secondary role and thus bringing the stories to life.

Paula Rego painted in order to tell a tale, and she was simultaneously a character and a narrator of timeless stories, reinscribing them in her own time.

The narrative dimension is always present in her work, organised through the vivaciousness and solidity of her imaginary world. It was through the vast universe of stories - traditional Portuguese folk tales and fairy stories; novels from Portuguese and English literature, theatre plays or adaptations of these stories for Walt Disney films - that her figurative research into the realm of fantasy and imagination gained a greater importance in her work.

Her rebellious personality and her fight for a free and autonomous expression led her to declare her independence from the artistic movements of her time and to constantly redefine the nature of her figurative language. This distinctive trait also obliged her to constantly subvert the conventions and limits imposed by any kind of artistic tradition or the constraints of a specific technique.