The movie “Paula Rego, Stories and Secrets“, by her son Nick Willing, is a fundamental document, not only for the understanding of the work of one of the greatest names in Contemporary Art, but above all as the example of what differentiates an Artist from one artist, that is, that distinguishes timelessness and legacy, from a mere passage through the world of art, or through one or another “village of art,” in the words of Paul Klein (n.1946).
The first dimension that seems to me to be relevant in Paula Rego‘s work (n. 1935) is the affirmation of Baudelaire‘s (1821-1867) reflection in “The painter of modern life“, common to other artists, of the importance of artist’s temperament for their production and creative process. In attempting to consider temperament as an element of the painting’s reading, in this case, the critic brings to light immanent elements of an art which is no longer ruled by external laws, revealing its autonomous character in relation to other spheres. Paula Rego’s work is an incredible inner truth and what this film reveals to us, besides the son’s authorship (which gives it an intimacy index capable of placing the spectator inside the scene), is an artist of a huge sensitivity, humility, permanently insecure, with doubts about herself and her work, knowledgeable of her condition as a fallible and sinful human being. Nick Willing’s act, in revealing his mother this way, tells us, on the other hand, the enormous awareness of his responsibility in perpetuating his mother’s legacy, leaving for the future tools that allow a simple, but yet complex, understanding, because of the humanity of her artistic production.
The second dimension that is clear from this testimony is the importance of the work: Paula Rego was even born into a middle-upper/middle-class family that allowed her to do her artistic studies very early at London, in the 1950s, even before Gulbenkian granted scholarships to Portuguese artists, so that they could study in Paris or London. Paula Rego met Victor Willing (1928-1988) still in the Slade days and this meeting would have provided her with good advice and incentives so that she would not stop painting, contacts in the artistic world. Undoubtedly, there are two conditions that, in the first place, favor the artist to the detriment of other artists of her generation. But what we realize in this movie is that Paula Rego worked a lot, always, with enormous resilience and restlessness, simultaneously. Did not stop painting even in periods of great financial or emotional difficulties. She did not give in into problems. She was a resistent, ever-brush in the revolution ranks. She produced more than others of that time, conscious, at some point, that it was not the way, did not stop. She is her job and her job is herself. And it was always the work that saved her, from everything. Including from herself.
Thirdly, this is a document that sets out and clarifies her working method, which takes us to her atelier. There is no doubt about how everything appears, from history to the builted scene, almost always with live models, culminating in the work in which the artist includes reflections of her own memories and secrets. It is almost a Baroque method, as if Paula Rego recovered the spirit of Rembrandt‘s atelier (1606-1669) and merged it with Caravaggio‘s insurrection (1571-1610), but in a style of a contemporary Portuguese and British woman, mother, wife, lover, free.
Finally, the movie takes us on an important journey about the artist and her context. It gives us a reading of Salazar‘s Portugal (with behavioral remnants to a very recent past), reflects on the woman’s role, shows us the London environment throughout this period and reveals to us the power of art and artists as opinion makers – that is, as political actors.
Even those who, at first, do not like Paula Rego’s work, after this movie they come to respect her. She is a tremendous painter, a woman of enormous boldness and courage. Paula Rego already has her pantheon, her name in all airports, squares and avenues. It is there even if they did not write it. More than a Portuguese artist, it is a greater name of contemporary culture.
Helena Mendes Pereira
shairart’s chief curator