A New Documentary Reveals the Struggles That Shaped Paula Rego’s Work

artnet News spoke to the artist and her son, Nick Willing, who directed the film.

Paula Rego and The Flying Mermaids. Photo ©Nick Willing.
Paula Rego with her work The Flying Mermaids (2017). Photo ©Nick Willing.

Nick Willing, son of the renowned artist Paula Rego, has directed a documentary on the life and work of his mother, in which the otherwise guarded artist opens up about the people and experiences that shaped both her personal life and her oeuvre.

Titled Secrets and Stories, the documentary draws from a huge archive spanning 60 years of home movies, family photographs, and interviews with Rego and experts on her work.

“I have been collecting footage of my mother—interviews and home movies— since 1975, when I first picked up a camera. I had always wanted to make a film about her because she’s such a fascinating person. And perhaps because she never let me into her studio, she became even more fascinating and mysterious,” Willing told artnet News.

Paula Rego in front of Dogs of Barcelona (1965). Photo ©Manuela Morais.

Paula Rego in front of Dogs of Barcelona (1965). Photo ©Manuela Morais.

“Then, when she turned 80, she started telling me stories about her life I’d never heard before. Stories which gave me a unique insight into my life, and hers, but also her work. I have always known that her work is intensely personal, so her experiences helped me to better understand it. I had not heard many of these stories before, and didn’t know how much she had suffered—from self-doubt, shyness, and depression—so this was a very revelatory and cathartic experience for me,” Willing explained.

In the film, Rego talks about her own mother, who was an “amazing painter” herself but also quite “harsh” with her daughter. She also speaks about growing up in Portugal (she was born in Lisbon, in 1935) a country that was “fascist and without freedom of speech.” For her, painting became an escape.

Paula Rego, <i>Depression Series, One</i> (2007). Copyright Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London.

Paula Rego, Depression Series, One (2007). Copyright Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London.

Rego also talks about her liberal dad, who suffered from depression himself, and who told the young Paula to leave their oppressive country and move to London to find freedom. She did, in 1951, and one year later she enrolled in the prestigious Slade School of Art.

It was there that she met Victor Willing, a fellow painter and student with whom she fell in love and eventually married, after his divorce.

The documentary, which will be broadcast on BBC Two on March 25, also traces her artistic journey, from her first steps as a painter to her most recent works.

To celebrate the release of the documentary, London’s Marlborough Fine Art is staging an exhibition of recent works on paper by the artist, showcasing 11 previously unseen pastels from her Depression series, created in 2007 during a particular dark period for Rego.

Paula Rego, Depression Series, Nine (2007). Copyright Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London.

Paula Rego, Depression Series, Nine (2007). Copyright Paula Rego, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London.

“Working helps. If I do something that I feel is good I feel better. I did the pictures when I was feeling very depressed. I was trying to draw my way out of the depression. But then I didn’t want people to see them because I felt ashamed of being so depressed. So I hid them, afraid that if I took them out again my depression would return,” Rego told artnet News of the series.

“But when I was making the film with my son, he asked if he could see them. As 10 years had passed, I felt brave enough to look at them again. It’s funny, but I don’t remember drawing them now. I have agreed to exhibit them at the Marlborough and Casa Das Historias to raise awareness of the terrible disease,” Rego added.

Victor Willing, Paula Rego, and Nick Willing at their home in Ericeira, Portugal, in 1970. Photo ©Manuela Morais.

Victor Willing, Paula Rego, and Nick Willing at their home in Ericeira, Portugal, in 1970. Photo ©Manuela Morais.

“I’m most impressed by her courage,” Willing told artnet News, when asked to point out the most important thing he learned about his mother during the process of making the documentary.

“Despite the tough time she had, a foreigner in London, a woman in a man’s art world, suffering from depression, self-doubt, and shyness, she kept at it and never gave up. And she kept improving, searching new worlds, getting better and braver. She has taught me a lot.”

Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories” will air on BBC Two at 9 p.m. on March 25, 2017.

Paula Rego: Works on Paper” is on view at Marlborough Fine Art, London, from March 14 – April 1, 2017.


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