Painter Paula Rego appears to have little intention of slowing down as she gets older. She celebrated her 73rd birthday this year by coordinating the largest showcase of her work to date in the United States.
The exhibit, now on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, presents more than 100 of Rego’s pieces.
Kathryn Wat, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, described the artist — who didn’t gain recognition until age 50 — as “a force of nature.”
Although Rego’s work has appeared in several solo exhibits in Europe, the NMWA is the first U.S. museum to present a retrospective collection of her artwork.
“It’s harder for American audiences to plug into her heart,” said Wat, who helped coordinate the exhibit. But Wat added that Rego is incredibly intuitive. “At her essence, Paula is a storyteller,” she said.
Rego’s work is rich in literary and cultural references with such pieces as an oil painting titled “Alice in Wonderland” (1952) and a pencil, ink and wash titled “Snow White and her Stepmother” (1995). Also on display is a collection of pieces depicting Jane Eyre, inspired by the classic novel.
The pieces also draw from current events. In a 2003 piece titled “War,” Rego offers her own interpretation of a newspaper portrait of an Iraqi mother holding her dead child. Rego’s pastel offers a twist on the photograph by replacing human heads with those of rabbits.
“She makes the humans into animals because she thinks in a way it makes it more upsetting,” Wat said.
Rego also toys with the idea of using people and animals interchangeably in a 1994 piece titled “Scavengers,” which depicts models crouched like animals. And in “Dancing Ostriches from Disney’s ‘Fantasia’” (1997), she swaps the animal ballerinas for human ones.
The NMWA collection, which is a smaller version of a similar exhibit from Madrid, maps Rego’s life by grouping her paintings, prints and drawings in chronological order.
In her younger years, Rego was inspired by the childlike style of French artist Jean Dubuffet and also driven by her own intense political frustration with her native Portugal. Combined, these two passions created one of her early oil paintings, “Salazar Vomiting on the Homeland” (1960), which was spurred by her hatred of the political leader António de Oliveira Salazar.
Following the completion of her four-year education at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1956, Rego continued to work for a few more years. She married artist Victor Willing and garnered little recognition until Willing became terminally ill in the mid-1980s. At that time, Rego created a series of personal pieces, which reinvigorated her status as an artist in her own right.
Now, Rego is appreciated for her ability to intricately interpret a woman’s experience into artwork, Wat said. For one piece in particular, “Bride” (1994), Rego uses pastels to compose a thought-provoking portrait of a young bride dressed on her wedding day.
“Something seems a little off on the subject matter. Something deeper and more complex is being expressed here,” Wat said of “Bride.”
But Wat said she thinks Rego’s work does more than just convey the experience of women; it can be viewed as an interpretation of the human experience, she said.
The exhibit is more than just a visual one. Visitors can take advantage of special audio narrations from the artist herself as part of a free cell phone tour. They simply have to dial into the provided phone number to hear Rego’s voice. The artist explains nine of her pieces on display, and Marco Livingstone, the curator for her exhibit in Madrid, also offers up an introduction.
The Paula Rego exhibit will be at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through May 25. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students and seniors. Admission is free for NMWA members and children 18 and younger. NMWA is located at 1250 New York Ave. NW and is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.