Happily Whenever After – Glass previews the documentary, Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories

ONCE upon a time, there was an artist who turned to fairytales and folklore for inspiration when painting. Such stories are the basis for most of the work in Dame Paula Rego’s 60-year-long outre oeuvre. Working mostly with paint and pastels , her anecdotal approach does not HAVE a visual language. It IS a visual language.

Story pic bbc rego Paula at work CREDIT ©NICK WILLINGPaula Rego at work in her studio in London. ©Nick Willing

Mirroring his mother’s creative process (turning anecdotes into art pieces), her son Nick Willing brings us her story in BBC 2 documentary.  The title Secrets and Stories becomes less quotidian once the viewer realises that the two words are synonyms in the context of Rego’s life. Prior to this film, her stories were secrets. Afterwards, secrets have become her story. More Brothers Grimm than Disney, after decades of obscuring it, Rego has finally released her fairytale to the world.

Story pic bbc rego Paula & Nick 1961  Paula Rego and her son Nick Willing in 1961

The film exposes the contrast between  how her work is described and how she comes across.  The work is “bold, honest, outgoing , free, and omnipowerful” but Rego is “shy, anxious, and afraid of others.” Her son expertly translates her stories and persona into celluloid, accomplishing the daunting task of defining how one can be outrageously outspoken yet never speak.

Story picture Paula Rego, Depression Series, Eleven, 2007, pastel on paper,Paula Rego, Depression Series, Eleven, 2007, pastel on paper. Copyright Paula Rego.
Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Confrontational on canvas  from the start of her career, she has challenged everything from fascist regimes to illegal abortion on canvas, often using abstraction to evade censorship. Despite six decades of chatting, chanting, shouting, whispering, whimpering, and orating with images, the Dame is notoriously parsimonious with her actual verbal expressiveness. She is outrageously outspoken but barely speaks. Or didn’t until this collaborating with her son  to produce a film that oscillates from depiction of her to a family portrait.

Story BBC Rego with stray dogs 1965 CREDIT ©MANUELA MORAISRego with Stray Dogs painting 1965. ©Manuela Morais

The Portuguese-born, London-based  impresario is so fluent on canvas that she is widely hailed as one of our greatest living figurative artists. Backing up this statement is her exhibition history which rivals the Dead Sea Scrolls for length, a coterie of honorary doctorates from prestigious universities, the grand distinction as the first ever artist in residence at the National Gallery, and a public museum Casa das Historias Paula Rego in Portugal entirely dedicated to her work.

Story pic bbc rego 1970 Vic Paula & Nick CREDIT ©MANUELA MORAISVic Willing, Paula Rego and Nick Willing in 1970. ©Manuela Morais

When asked what she is most proud of Rego replies “winning the Summer Prize at Slade”. Despite her tremendous success, the octogenarian sparkles with a  childlike lack of ego. She speaks with such authenticity and quirky displays of humility that it is impossible not to find her endearing, even in the context of this warts-and-all, often highly unflattering retrospective of her life.

Story pic bbc rego Paula & Nick CREDIT ©NICK WILLINGPaula Rego and Nick Willing. ©Nick Willing

As child, Willing was not even allowed into her studio. Rego reveals in the film that she was herself while painting and everything domestic felt like “playing house”. Her marriage to Nick’s father, Vic Willing was a painful one. They met while both enrolled at Slade. Willling was already had wife (whom he would eventually leave) when he fell for Rego: a harbinger of his future infidelity and the collapse of their marriage. Much of the film is dedicated to the exploration of this topic. Rego reveals that when Vic Willing passed away, Rego’s reaction was “now who will help me with my art” – a statement that says more about her love for her art than her lack of love for her son’s father.

story pic Paula Rego, Depression Series, Nine, 2007, pastel on paper, 68.5 x 101.5 cm,Paula Rego, Depression Series, Nine, 2007, pastel on paper, 68.5 x 101.5 cm.
Copyright Paula Rego, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Unabashedly describing her compartmentalisation of family and art, Rego asserts “it was brush or baby. Doing pictures has nothing to do with having children. You do the pictures, you have the children. It’s not part of the same life.” Yet sequestering herself with an easel was her only authentic sense of self.

Although Nick Willing began collecting footage in 1975, the candid expose only was catalysed by an unexpected eagerness of his mother to discuss her otherwise cloistered life, a twist contemporaneous to her turning 80 (she is now 82). The movie is a montage comprised of family photos, archival footage and interviews

To enter her studio, in the past, would have been trespassing. Rego inviting him into the studio is monumental in itself, even more so considering he is brandishing a camera while doing so.

An unique aspect to Rego’s secrets is so many of them are tangible. Even when she was a student at the prestigious Slade School of Art, which she enrolled in in 1953, she kept a secret sketchbook in which explored a style that would have been discouraged by her tutors.

Story picture Paula Rego, Depression Series, Six, 2007, pastel on paper, 101.5 x 67 cm,

Paula Rego, Depression Series, Six, 2007, pastel on paper, 101.5 x 67 cm.
Copyright Paula Rego, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Some families have skeletons in the closet. Rego kept hers in a drawer. Bringing to life the notion of an enigma wrapped in a riddle, the studio is peeled back a further layer when she shows her son the thing she is most ashamed of: a series of self-portraits from the nadir of a lifetime struggle with depression that happened 2006-7. Unearthing a buried body of work is as significant as finding an actual body in the context of Rego’s world.

Despite her penchant for hiding things, Rego never concealed her tendency towards depression (only the slew of totems that represent it) . However, after a lifetime of openness about her “black dog”, in her early 70s, the artist became abundantly ashamed of this bleak period,

The catharsis of sharing the images has inspired Rego to raise awareness of the disease as they are on display at the gallery that represents her, Marlborough Fine Arts until April 1.  Willing also emerged from the process healed. Like his mother, the only conduit to doing so was through the thing he knows best – filmmaking.

by Yasmin Bilbeisi

Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories is aired on BBC2 Saturday, March 25 at 21.00.