Paula Rego's private world

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Now in her eighth decade, and with another new exhibition opening, she's been called 'the best painter of women's experience alive'. So why does she still feel frightened?

“It is,” says Paula Rego, “as empty as you can get.” For a moment, I'm not sure if she's joking, but she isn't. I've just asked her how long she's been working in this studio, which used to be a picture-framing workshop, and which you enter through a very scruffy, and almost secret, door. Once you get in, it's hard not to gasp. There are prints and pictures on the wall, as you might expect. There's a giant easel, and a trolley full of pastels, as you might expect. But what you wouldn't necessarily expect is the man on the sofa with the sheep, and the dog, and the horse. What you wouldn't expect are the tiny figures that could be children, or demons, and the old woman who's naked, apart from a hat.

What you wouldn't expect, in fact, is a studio stuffed with props, and clothes, and mannequins put together in groups that make you think of Hieronymus Bosch.

“You don't like an empty space?” says Rego, when she sees my surprise. It doesn't, I tell her, look all that empty to me. “You've got to have chairs,” she explains, as if she was talking to quite a small child, “and you've got to have easels, and Radio 4, and you've got to play records, and then we've got the dollies we make, and the characters we make, which are for the story.”

“We,” it's clear, is Rego and her assistant, Lila Nunes, who has been working with her since 1985. For more than 25 years, she has sat for her, stood for her, crouched for her, hour after hour and day after day. For more than 25 years, she has helped to give life, in paint, and pastel, and charcoal, to the characters in Paula Rego's head. If you think this sounds like an easy thing to do, then you probably don't know Rego's work. It isn't just the poses. It isn't just the fact that the figures in her paintings, and her drawings, are often squatting, or bending, or lying, or stretching, in ways that look as if they would definitely give you cramp. It's what you can see in their faces. Paula Rego's women – and most of the figures in her work are women – are sad, and angry, and worried, and vengeful, and afraid.

In the picture that's in front of us, for example, which Rego hasn't yet finished, there's an old woman who looks miserable, and an old woman who looks angry, and an old woman who's got her hands over a child's face. There's a tiny figure in a chair which might be an old man, but which might also be a skeleton. And there's a circle of children around them, in pretty dresses, with guns. You could, I suppose, say all kinds of things about it, but one thing you couldn't really say is that it was likely to cheer you up.

The picture's called Playground, and it's part of a series Rego has done for her new exhibition, The Dame with the Goat's Foot and Other Stories. Some of these pictures have already been shown, with work by the artist Adriana Molder, at the Casa das Historias, the gallery near Lisbon built to honour Rego's work. Many of them were inspired by The Goat-Footed Lady, a story by the 19th-century Portuguese writer Alexandre Herculano, based on an 11th-century folk tale.

“There was,” says Rego, when I ask her about the story, “a hunter. This hunter was riding along the roads and hills, and he heard wonderful singing.” Before I can stop her, she's off: to a land where a handsome hunter meets a “marvellously beautiful” girl and discovers that one of her feet is a goat's. Her eyes shine as she tells the story, and when she gets to the moment when it all goes wrong, I actually hear myself gasp. The story goes on, and on, and on, but suddenly she tails off. “What happens, Lila?” she says. “The son,” says Lila, who, it's clear, is as used to filling in stories as she is to crouching, squatting, and booking cabs, “sees flames coming out of the river, and mutilated people. The lady,” she adds, “stays in the mountain, singing.”

It is, in other words, the kind of story you come across in Rego's work all the time. There's passion. There's drama. There's disaster. The lady disappears into the sky, but carries on singing. The painter carries on painting. The dog dies. Portuguese stories, it has become clear to me in my reading for the interview, are even darker than most fairy tales.

“Yes,” says Rego when I say this, “they're the grimmest, the darkest, most ferocious stories there are.” But why? “Because,” she says, as if it's an obvious point, “it's like the Portuguese.” But why is there so much violence in Portuguese culture? “Well, they gave birth to Salazar and dictatorships.” Yes, but this story is nearly 1,000 years old! “Same thing,” she says. “It's coming back to it, it never leaves.”

Well, she should know. She was born in Lisbon in 1935. Her father, who worked as an engineer for Marconi, went to live in London with her mother the following year, leaving Paula in the care of her grandmother. It was from her grandmother, and her grandmother's maids, and a depressive aunt, that she heard some of the folk tales that became as real to her as the world around her. But that world, it seems, was quite like the folk tales, too. “I was born during the dictatorship,” she says, meaning the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which ran from 1934 to 1968, “and it was horrendous. People were massacred. They were put in jail. They had their nails pulled. And then there was the revolution, and then that was supposed to have stopped. But I don't see that it has stopped, really.” And she laughs.

The laugh takes me by surprise, but then quite a lot about Paula Rego takes me by surprise. She looks older than I expected. She moves like someone who's in pain, which, she says, she is. She has a sweet, sweet smile, but you don't expect to see it when she's talking about massacres, and nails. And when she tells a story, she makes you think both of a grandmother telling a child a story and of a child repeating the story her grandmother has told.

“I think Surrealism has always understood what I do,” she says, when I try to press her on the issue of the Portuguese and violence, “and I've always loved Max Ernst.” She tells me about an exhibition of work at the Whitechapel by the French artist Pierre Klossowski. It must, from what she's saying, have been in the Sixties, after she had studied art at the Slade, married her tutor, Victor Willing (who left his wife to be with her), lived in Portugal for a few years and then come back to London. The drawings, she says, were “just in pencil”, and they were “a man and his wife fornicating and doing all sorts of dirty things”. But when she walked into the room, she felt that she was “surrounded by angels”. She decided to make mannequins to copy, as he did, and to do a show, “all of drawings” of her own.

The resulting work wasn't just strange, and disturbing, and instantly recognisable as hers. It was also, sometimes, beautiful. Her art, she has said, deals with the “beautiful grotesque”. The “grotesque” is there for all to see: in old women breastfeeding children, in witches, and skeletons, and giant spiders, and women cradling men who look as if they're dying. But you could only miss the beauty if you don't think humanity has beauty. If these women who cry, and rage, and fight, and struggle, are anything, it's human. The art critic Robert Hughes said Paula Rego was “the best painter of women's experience alive.” Germaine Greer, who posed for a portrait Rego painted which is now in the National Gallery, has said her paintings “quiver with an anger and compassion of which we have sore need”.

So what, I ask, as I gaze at the strange tableaux around us, and the faces she has drawn that seem so full of pain, does she want people to feel when they see her work? Is it still, as she said at one of her exhibitions in 1965, about “giving fear a face”? Rego smiles, as if the idea was new. “Yes! This is what I discovered I'm doing to myself all the time. ” She tries, she explains, to do pictures that don't always have an element of fear or violence in them, but finds that it always “comes out” anyway. “I put something in there like the shots,” she says, referring to the plastic guns in Playground, “and then this looming fear comes out, which is what you have all the time”.

Is it? Some people, I tell her, don't. And fear, surely, is just one emotion. Isn't art about the whole range of emotions? For a moment, Rego looks stricken. “It seems,” she says, as if someone has caught her making a terrible mistake, “to be the most powerful one, the one that pursues you all your life, since you were a baby.”

It certainly seems to have pursued her. She has been in Jungian analysis for quite a lot of her adult life, but it doesn't seem to have got rid of this fear. Why does she think it hasn't? Rego looks stricken again. “I think,” she says, “it was crying and crying and nobody coming to my help.” At the “military youth” she was sent to for “fascist indoctrination” she was, she says, told that you should never look in a fire or you'd see “the Devil's face”. She didn't ever see the Devil's face, but she did, she tells me, once climb into her parents' bed after having a nightmare and see “Death get into bed as well”.

So why did she carry on with the analysis if it didn't get rid of her fear? Rego looks surprised. “Oh, it was marvellous,” she says, “the analyst was immensely kind, and I felt safe.” But didn't she feel safe anywhere else? “I felt safe at home with my grandmother.” And with her husband? “I felt safe with my husband”. Nowhere else? “There isn't,” she says, “anywhere else.” But there is, I tell her, the rest of the world! What about with other people? “With friends, I felt fine, yes.” And on her own? “I never liked being on my own, ever, ever, ever, ever.”

The poet and translator Anthony Rudolf features in quite a lot of her work. Like Lila, he has knelt, and crouched, for hours, and days, under Rego's steady gaze. He's usually referred to in interviews and profiles as her partner. Does she live with him? “No.” Are they still together? “He's not my partner,” she says, as if I've suggested something quite strange, “he's my friend!” It seems relevant, I tell her, to talk about these things since sexuality is such a big part of her work. You might well think of fear when you look at a Rego painting or drawing, but you're also quite likely to think of sex. Does she think she's a particularly sexual person? “Yes,” she says. “With Vic, I was, yes. I adored him. I don't know if he adored me, he probably didn't, but he found me sexy.” And has she, I say, had other partners since? Rego looks sad, and I almost wish I hadn't asked. “Not partners in that sense, no.”

When Victor died, of multiple sclerosis, in 1988, Rego went on a trip to Southend and threw her cigarettes in the sea. It changed her work. Needing something in the hand she used to use to smoke, she started holding a palate. “Both hands were occupied,” she says, “pencil, charcoal, pastel, model, and I began to draw from life”. She started work on a series of drawings and paintings called The Dance, which were shown at, and bought by, the Tate. “That,” she says, “occupied me completely.” She's unusual in doing as much drawing as painting, and in being equally happy to do both. She gave up paint because she didn't like the turpentine smell, but she thinks pastels suit her better.

“It's much more severe than painting,” she says, “I'd much rather handle something that's so direct to what I'm doing than draw it with this sensitive and wriggly object, which is called a brush.” So does she want the violence of the paintings to be reflected in the process? “Yes!” And is there some kind of catharsis for her in producing a work? Rego looks unsure. “They're all different, you see. And I have to decide by myself now,” she says, sounding sad again, “what to do about it.”

Most of her painter friends have, she says, disappeared or died. But in Charles Saatchi, who has bought quite a bit of her work, she has a patron who's also the patron of many of the YBAs. What does she think of them?

“To tell you the truth,” says Rego, as if she's saying something she shouldn't, “my favourite is Sarah Lucas. She's very, very good. I like her. I can't remember the names of the others now.” Tracey Emin, I suggest. Rego smiles. “I gave her a tutorial at the Royal College of Art, and she said, 'but you only talked about men'. Which,” she adds with a giggle, “was probably true.” But do you think she's any good? “I think she tries,” she says, “and she's brave”. And what about Damien Hirst? “I like the dead cow's head and the flies, but then it's all the same, the same, the same.” If Paula Rego is struggling a bit physically these days, her critical faculties, it's clear, are just fine.

Her son-in-law, Ron Mueck, who's actually Australian, became a YBA when Saatchi spotted his work in Rego's studio. “He has something which very few have,” says Rego, “the gift of life”. She has said in the past, I remind her, that good drawing is about “being alive”. Does she still think this? Rego shrugs. “It's what I've always done, since I was a child of four. I like it. It's secret. Also, you can punish the people you don't like, or who've been naughty to you. You can do anything you like in a drawing, anything.”

It seems, I tell her, as if her dream world is lived out on the paper or canvas. Is it? “Yes.” Do her dreams feel more real to her than the outside world? “My fears,” she says, “are outside dreams, they're very much to do with being outdoors.” What, she's an artist who doesn't like being outside? “I like being in shops.” She doesn't like nature? But she lives on Hampstead Heath! “Luckily,” she says, “our flat faces the car park, so I don't have to look at all the trees.”

She has said that she is “of course a feminist” because “all women are feminists”. But, I tell her, they're not. And some critics have said her work, which often shows women in thrall to powerful and seductive men, doesn't seem feminist at all. In the series of pictures she did about Jane Eyre in 2001 and 2002, Mr Rochester feels as powerful a presence as Jane. Why, apart from the pictures she has done on abortion, and female genital mutilation, (which are very, very powerful and shocking) would she say that her work is feminist?

“Well,” she says, “I've watched so much injustice against women in Portugal.” In her village, she says, she would see women who were hungry, and who were beaten by their husbands, and drowned babies (because their mothers couldn't feed them, and couldn't have abortions) floating in the sea. “You paint pictures about it,” she says, “that's what I think.” And does it change anything? “Well,” she says, and then she's quiet for a moment, “I don't know. But at least the artist thinks he can. Think of Goya. He thought he was going to sell a lot of The Disasters of War, and he didn't.” Maybe Goya didn't, but on that front, at least, Paula Rego has done pretty well. She has been a star in Portugal since the Sixties (and was recently asked to paint the President, which, she says, was “a nightmare”) and has been a star in this country since an exhibition at the Serpentine in 1988. She was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1989 and became the first artist in residence at the National Gallery in 1990. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2010. And her pictures, according to her biographer, can sell for half a million each.

But one thing is clear. It's the art that matters. “I want to do better pictures,” she says, and she looks, for a moment, like a child who's worried that she won't be understood. “I want to do better and better and better until the thing is some good. You have to go away and come back again, and then you say 'no', and you have to do it again.”

The Dame with the Goat's Foot and Other Stories, Marlborough Fine Art, London W1 to 1 March

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