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Paula Rego—oppression, injustice and the art of defiance

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A new exhibition looking back at the work of artist Paula Rego contains powerful critiques of life under fascism and capitalism, says Maggie Falshaw
Issue 2763
Interrogation—painted when Paula Rego was 15—is on show at Tate Britain
Interrogation—painted when Paula Rego was 15—is on show at Tate Britain

In her 70 years as an artist Paula Rego witnessed dictatorship and revolution. Her work opposing the horrors of fascism, colonialism, repression and the abuse and discrimination experienced by women are depicted in this exhibition.

From a young age she witnessed injustice, and she wanted to use her art in opposition to this.

Rego was born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1935. Portugal was under the Salazar dictatorship, overthrown by the Portuguese Revolution in 1974.

Rego’s parents were fiercely anti‑fascist, and she followed in their footsteps.

After leaving school, she studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

The first work in this major retrospective, Interrogation, was painted when she was aged 15.

It shows a woman’s experience of imprisonment and torture under the Salazar regime.

Following the defeat of a referendum in 1998 to legalise abortion, Rego began work on a series of untitled pastels, which show women after having illegal abortions. She saw these as part of the drive to legalise abortion.

Much of her work shows the abuse and oppression experienced by women. But the women in the paintings are not cowed or submissive. The images show a range of feeling—pain, sexual arousal or women who are fiercely independent.

Each of the 100 works is a powerful critique of life under fascism and later modern capitalism

The women in them are portrayed as physically strong and defiant.

In 1990, Rego became the first artist in residence at the National Gallery, London. She used the opportunity to subvert the work of the mostly male artists displayed there.

She produced work inspired by European painters, including William Hogarth and Diego Velazquez, inserting female characters in her work.

Although the exhibition highlights Rego’s work on tackling sexism, she also used her art to expose and challenge other forms of injustice experienced by all workers.

One work, Julieta, was painted after reading a newspaper article about a technician who was electrocuted while working on a high voltage electricity pylon.

The painting was named after his wife, Julieta, who witnessed his death.

In the work, imagery of three crosses is borrowed from Catholic iconography, with the worker’s body echoing Christ at the crucifixion. These are just some of the works that made a lasting impression on me.

Each of the 100 works is a powerful critique of life under fascism and later modern capitalism.

It is refreshing to see the celebration of women artists—especially one who used her art to fight for the ­liberation of women and men.

At Tate Britain, central London, until 24 Oct. Book online at


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