Paula Rego was born and brought up in Portugal under Salazar’s dictatorship. When she was 16 she moved to the UK and trained at the Slade School of Fine Art. She often draws inspiration from Portuguese fables and folklore and fear, cruelty and violence feature prominently in her work. She describes herself as a feminist artist, and women are usually at the forefront of her work, often looking tough and muscular, and wearing expressions of gleeful malice or naked revenge. Rego has described her work as a subversion of hierarchies. ‘I can turn the tables and make women stronger than men,’ she says. ‘I can make them obedient and murderous at the same time.’ She has made work which explicitly deals with violence against women – through FGM, sex trafficking and honour killings.
Rego’s early paintings tended towards abstraction, sometimes featuring her own drawings used as collage. Subsequently she has moved towards a more figurative, naturalistic painting style (and similarly in her printmaking), though often presenting characters as animals or children. Rego likes to leave the matter of interpretation open to the viewer, and there is always much that is suggestive: from political satire, to issues of feminism and gender, to powerful suggestions of Freudian sexuality.
In 2014 Rego offered to create a work for The Women’s Art Collection to mark the College’s 60th Anniversary. We were asked to choose a subject and, taking inspiration from the history and folktales of Rego’s native Portugal, we chose Inês de Castro. Inês was a 14th-century Galician noblewoman, who had an illegitimate affair with Prince Pedro of Portugal and was brutally murdered by his father, King Alfonso IV. Allegedly, when he ascended to the throne Pedro exhumed Inês’ corpse and gave his dead lover a lavish coronation.
The painting was created as a response to Maggi Hambling’s ‘Gulf Women Prepare for War’, which hangs alongside it in the College’s Dome. Aside from their common themes of violence, nationalism and gender, there are echoes between the paintings’ colour schemes and compositions: in both works the pale, dusky pinks are contrasted with dark greens and browns and the female soldier’s gun which cuts diagonally across Hambling’s painting finds a match in Inês’ recumbent pose.