The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine
Artist. Activist. Maverick… My mum
If your mother is Paula Rego, the globally acclaimed artist known for denouncing dictators and championing causes close to her heart, life is never going to be dull. Here, her son, film-maker Nick Willing, gives us an insight
Nick Willing, son of Paula Rego, on growing up with his subversive mother, and her deeply political, searingly personal work
For most of my life, Sunday has meant lunch at my mother’s flat in Hampstead with my two older sisters and our respective partners and kids; usually a big gathering. Mum, now 84, works obsessively throughout the week, but has always set aside a few hours on Sunday for her family. Over a big pot of lulas (Portuguese squid) or bacalhau (dried salted cod), she spikes the conversation with her unique brand of mischievous humour and twisted tales. As a child, I remember feeling an odd mixture of horror and liberation while listening to her stories. Horror because they were often shocking, but liberation too because taboos and preconceptions were nearly always challenged.
However, at one Sunday lunch in early July 1998, the mood was quite different. There were no stories or irreverent jokes. She was too sad and angry. Portugal had just held a referendum that could have legalised abortion. The result was a narrow victory for ‘No’ (50.92 per cent), but it would not have counted if it had gone the other way because the turnout hadn’t met the 50 per cent threshold. Only 32 per cent of the Portuguese electorate had voted. As a result, abortion remained illegal.
Portuguese women, who Mum felt should have been voting in their droves, had stayed away. It was estimated that up to 50,000 dangerous backstreet abortions were carried out each year in Portugal, putting daughters, sisters and mothers at risk. Over the years Mum had helped dozens of women who’d been abandoned or beaten because of an unwanted pregnancy or injured by botched procedures. During the 1950s, ’60s and much of the ’70s, when Portugal was still governed by a fascist dictatorship, family planning wasn’t an option for the majority of working-class Portuguese. Backstreet abortions were seen as the only way out by desperate women. Mum shook her head in dismay: why, after so much suffering, had they not voted?
But there was something else. The failed referendum brought back her own memories. While still a teenager, she too had had a brutal backstreet abortion. So, when anger turned to defiance, Mum set about making what she now considers her most important work – a series simply titled Untitled, of young girls, some in school uniforms, undergoing or recovering from illegal abortions. These are pictures of trauma and loneliness, but they’re also defiant displays of survival. Because there’s no gore or blood, we’re forced to focus on more complex internal feelings, psychological as well as physical; a see-saw of pain and relief, misery and self-preservation. It’s this balance of apparently contradictory emotions that defines Mum’s work. Nothing is ever just about one thing because life is filled with competing feelings.
When it was shown in Portugal, her abortion series had a huge impact. Women recognised those complex responses and felt ashamed when Paula Rego spoke out in interviews about their absence from the referendum. When a second referendum was held in 2007, though turnout
was still low at about 40 per cent, almost 60 per cent of those who voted did so in favour of legalising abortion, and this result was respected. Portugal’s president from 1996 to 2006, Jorge Sampaio, said that Mum’s intervention made all the difference: ‘The very harsh brutality of her pictures at the time and the suffering of women and how she expressed this, even if it was for many people in an aggressive way, it was an influence.’
It’s rare for an artist to make a real political difference, so I see this as a huge achievement. For Mum, politics is the tool that either protects or restricts justice and freedom, and for someone who grew up under a repressive regime, there is nothing more important than those values.
From an early age I came to understand that painting wasn’t so much Mum’s way of expressing her feelings, but rather her way of understanding them. In 1960 her loathing of Portugal’s dictator led to a seminal work: Salazar Vomiting the Homeland. But as she was beating him up, humiliating and belittling him with oil on canvas, she started to feel sorry for him. ‘I thought there must be something wrong with me,’ she told me later. ‘How could I feel sorry for this repulsive dictator?’ Salazar was Portugal’s Franco, who took power in 1932; the country would remain in the grip of dictatorship until the revolution in 1974. His regime ruthlessly enforced censorship of the arts, so Mum hid her messages behind coded imagery. Her pictures became more surrealist, layered mixed-media collages filled with hidden stories. The Imposter (1964), another ‘portrait’ of Salazar, depicts him in a number of guises – a slippery octopus for instance, dancing with a cloaked figure.
As a kid I wasn’t allowed in my mother’s studio, so I grew up thinking that art was a magical and mysterious pursuit that happened in secret. She didn’t have much time or patience for domestic life, and although she loved her children, she mostly found motherhood boring, so if we wanted to spend time with our mum we needed to find things to do that would hold her attention. In my case they turned out to be drawing and cinema.
She loved going to the movies and talking about their plots and characters, but for most of my childhood, time spent together involved drawing. Drawing and laughing. Inventing on the page, pushing the boundaries of my imagination, attacking those I disliked, embracing those I loved, doing what I wouldn’t dare do in real life. ‘In drawing you can do ANYTHING,’ she would say through that grin filled with crooked teeth. ‘Your wildest dreams.’ When we drew together I never felt like the child being patronised by the parent. We were equals, crusaders exploring uncharted waters, heroes. Page after page was filled with grand battles, humble fireside scenes, caricatures of wicked cousins, sublime portraits of whatever girl I was crushing on. She delighted in seeing how I drew, perhaps because I was a child so I wasn’t trying to make art (something she loathed) but just getting my feelings out on to the page.
Looking back, I now realise that Mum has never been very good at talking about her personal feelings or, indeed, discussing the feelings of others. If I felt strongly about something that I didn’t com
For most of my childhood, time spent together involved drawing. Drawing and laughing
pletely understand, I would find someone else to talk to – my eldest sister for example, or my dad. Mum’s strong feelings were often hidden away, secrets used as fuel for ever more intense pictures.
At 13 I was sent away to boarding school, where I was horribly bullied. I remember calling my mother to ask if I could come home to London. For her, the solution wasn’t to run away, it was to use it. ‘Draw the bullies, Nick,’ she told me. ‘I want to see what they feel like.’ So I did. I drew them all several times, trying to show clearly what they felt like, and posted them off to my mother. Only then did she seem to understand how bad it was, but instead of coming to fetch me, she asked me to draw them again, but this time to take my revenge.
Pictures have power, that’s obvious, but for my mother that power is more useful if it can help her make sense of why she feels a certain way. And then, of course, perhaps make her feel better. The vast majority of her works aren’t about national issues such as abortion rights, but examinations of more personal domestic politics. The tyranny of the family for example. Obedience and defiance.
A few years after my father, the British painter Victor Willing, passed away in 1988, my mother started a series of pictures about him as a way of alleviating her grief. They were as much an indictment of their relationship as a celebration of it. He never appears in them; she is always alone, asleep on his coat in one painting, waiting for him to come home. Or opening her dress in another, to offer her bare back as a target to help him shoot her. These are what she calls her Dog Women, memories of loyalty and abuse. And yet, despite the brutal criticism of both their roles in the relationship, she maintains that he’s the only man she’s ever really loved. It’s just that their intoxicating passion also brought anguish and humiliation. Somehow, by painting those conflicting emotions truthfully, she started to come to terms with his death.
She was hugely attracted to him from the moment they met in the early 1950s at the Slade School of Fine Art, but what she talks about most is how well he understood her and, in particular, her work. ‘He would always know where I’d been and who I’d been talking to just by the inflection of my voice,’ she told me once. ‘But his genius was understanding the work better than anyone.’
Although she admits to feeling jealous of his painting sometimes, he was never jealous of hers. He wasn’t competitive, and would often work hard to help her get shows or suggest ways to fix pictures that weren’t going well. It’s this that she misses most about him – the clear, insightful understanding of her paintings. But in the later years of their relationship, when he was suffering from multiple sclerosis and the money dried up, life would often turn sour.
In 2004 Mum produced one of her best pictures, a triptych inspired by Martin Mcdonagh’s play The Pillowman, which features the story of a little girl who believes she’s Jesus and is crucified then buried alive by her abusive foster parents, to see if she will rise again. Throughout Mum’s career I’ve noticed that critics have mistakenly described her as an illustrative or anecdotal artist. They think that she’s making pictures of other people’s stories. But her work is always rooted in her own personal experience. Mum doesn’t always know why she chooses a story, but in the process of painting, her feelings change, pulling her away from the written narrative towards a period in her life that, in one way or another, remains unresolved. In this case she found herself researching – and drawing – Estoril, which was her home town in Portugal when, during the Second World War, she too was a little girl. Estoril had become a safe haven for many European kings and queens. As Portugal was neutral during the war, the town’s casino became the ideal place for British and German spies to feed each
other counter-intelligence, and its beach the spot where royal refugees sat out the war – not least the former Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson for a time. Mum’s house was just behind the casino; she would dance and take piano lessons there, and remembers the intense atmosphere of the place and the unease of its beach. It was those memories that most informed the Pillowman triptych and gave it its authenticity and power.
Despite all that I learnt at school, and the efforts of teachers to steer me towards a decent profession, the thing that stuck with me was what I did to get away: drawing the way I felt, telling my own stories in pictures. My mother hadn’t meant to teach me anything useful – she was always subversive when it came to education – but I’d learnt from her nevertheless. Those expressive drawings of bullies and glamorous girls first led to me making animated cartoons, then writing and directing fantasy films. But I learnt an even more important lesson from her work, particularly her political pictures: stories only really hit home when they come from authentic personal experience.
Mum is a master of visual storytelling. I’ve often stood in front of her pictures and felt my emotions pulled one way, then the other. What initially seems like a playful scene quietly transforms into something darker. If you look closely at the little girl lovingly petting the dog you might find that she’s actually lovingly strangling it. Look again at the dog and you may wonder if he is complicit.
In an age when political issues are often reduced to binary choices, right or wrong, her pictures remind me that the truth lies somewhere in between.
Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance is at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes from 15 June until 22 September (mkgallery.org)