Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935 and has traveled between London and Portugal throughout her life. She studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, and her career as an artist spans half a century. Originally commissioned for the exhibition Spellbound (1996) at the Hayward Gallery in London and then acquired by Saatchi Gallery, the Dancing Ostriches series was inspired by Walt Disney’s Fantasia and became Rego’s response to mark the centenary of cinema in Britain. This is the first time in twenty years that the series has been on public display in the United Kingdom.
Dancing Ostriches is opening at the Marlborough Gallery in London. Why did you decide to show them there now? Is there a particular meaning?
Well I didn’t decide it the Marlborough decided but it’s nice to see them again.
They say you have been inspired by Walt Disney’s 1995 film ‘Fantasia’ in this series of your pastels. Is this true and if so, how?
Yes it is true. I saw all the Walt Disney films when I was a little girl with my grandmother and I loved them. The Ostriches were a welcome relief from the scariness of Bald Mountain with the devil or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which had Mickey Mouse getting things wrong. In the film Disney’s Ostriches are trying very hard to be elegant ballerinas and in the pictures the women are trying very hard too, but they are getting a bit old. I was trying very hard as well because I knew nothing about ballet.
Like Degas you seem to have given the best of yourself to your work in pastels, but your ballerinas are very different from those of Degas. Have you been influenced by Degas’ work?
Yes I have. His marvellous use of pastels and in the movement he achieves in his little sculptures.
They often say that you are a feminine artist similar to Lucien Freud.
I wish I were.
Do you feel an affinity with his paintings that depict fat women?
No, I like all his work.
Is there a beauty in that for you?
Yes there is beauty. I paint women as they are and he did that too. Some women are bigger than others.
What do you want to show by using ugliness and physical decadence?
I don’t use ugliness or physical decadence. I don’t know what you mean. These are the women I know.
There aren’t many women of your generation who achieved such a brilliant career. Was it difficult for you as a woman to become a major artist?
Very difficult. It was very difficult to get a gallery to show my work. Some of them thought I’d give up once I had children but I already had three children by the time I was 25. I kept my children away from my studio. They weren’t allowed to go in. Having children didn’t stop me on the contrary. While I was expecting my second child I drew endlessly.
You were much praised but you didn’t make money from your work until the late 80s. Has your life changed a lot since?
Yes, it’s a relief to have some money now and not worry about paying the milkman. My extravagance is buying clothes, which I love to do, but most of my life is still spent in the studio. Having enough money takes away the worry.
How did you react when they decided to make a museum in your name in Portugal?
I was pleased they suggested it because I also wanted to show my husband’s pictures. The museum turned out to be much more impressive than I had envisaged. I called it the House of Stories because that’s what I do. I also think story is very important. It’s how we understand the culture. Portuguese folk tales are the cruellest and more down to earth.
When there is a show like this one at the Marlborough do you still feel the same excitement that you felt exhibiting your work in the early days?
I feel as concerned as I used to…. hoping it will be OK.
As a child your mother encouraged you to draw on the floor and you kept on doing that for years?
I just decided to draw on the floor, no one encouraged me to do that.
Do you still do this, on the floor?
No. I started working standing up when I got a model. So I could see her properly.
When you were very young in the 50s in Portugal you made frescoes for your father’s factory. Were you very much encouraged to be an artist by your family?
My father asked me to do them, but they were large paintings not frescoes. I still have them. My mother had been to an art school herself. She didn’t believe in praise but she had a good eye. My father really encouraged me. They supported me financially through art school and for many years afterwards. That allowed me to carry on as an artist. I don’t know what else I could have been.
Your subsequent studies and work were in the UK. You studied alongside two very prominent artists, Auerbach and Hockney. Do you feel some affinity with them?
I was at the Slade and I didn’t know Auerbach. Hockney was at the Royal College of Art and he’s a bit younger. I went to his graduation show and I bought one of his etchings. I liked his work then very much. I don’t feel any artistic affinity with them.
Have you been influenced over the years of your career by different artists?
It’s not a career it’s a way of life. And yes I have been influenced by many artists. My favourites change over the years. My father bought me a book on Dada and surrealism that I looked at all the time. I was influenced by Dubuffet, Ensor, Goya but I was also influenced by people I admired and who I knew, like Diana Cumming and Menez.
Why did you decide to establish yourself in England instead of going back to Portugal?
My husband was English and I loved London, I still do.
You seem to be a peculiar combination of Portuguese and English. Is your work influenced by your Portuguese roots and childhood?
Yes it is, and the stories I heard and the place I grew up in. I found it easier to paint my childhood from my studio in London but I could never paint London. Though I did draw the English nursery rhymes.
Has your husband had a great influence on your work and in particular your illustrations?
He understood my work, that was important. I valued his opinion very much. But our work isn’t similar in any way. I couldn’t have helped him with his work. I wouldn’t dare.
What kind of an artist are you? How have you changed over the years?
I’m an artist who tells stories…. not an illustrator. Though I wouldn’t mind being an illustrator. Over the years I have become more academic, I hope. What I like best is drawing and using pastel is like drawing.
You have had a long career. Do you still feel the same flame of passion for your craft?
I have the same doubts and fears that I’ve always had. I still have the same hope that I’ll get better.
What do you feel about the world of art today? Do you feel that you are a survivor from another time or do you feel an affinity with today’s art?
What’s today’s art? I have no affinity with conceptual art. I couldn’t do it. But I’m not from another time I’m alive now.
You have been honoured and applauded in the UK at major exhibitions in galleries in museums. And at the same time they built The Paula Rego museum in Cascais and some of your frescoes can be seen in public buildings in Portugal. Where is your heart beating?
Inside my body.
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London, 28th September 2016