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Paula Rego: Learn why her portraits are so rare

Paula Rego: Learn why her portraits are so rare

Paula Rego painted few portraits, making each one worth a fortune.

The one of Fiona Bradley was sold by Christie's for 266,000 euros. Get to know the others.

Paula Rego does not paint portraits. She paints stories. Throughout her 70 year career she has painted fascism, abortion, tragedy and solidarity between women. In painting the stories of others, she told her own story - that of her home and her country, Portugal. A tireless provocateur, she painted loneliness and despair, frustration and desire, freedom and imprisonment. Influenced by Surrealism and, to a certain extent, by Dadaism, she painted the sin she imagined, repentance, purgatory, morality and the lack of it. In ambiguous figures, half human, half animal, half puppet, half things that only she would know, she denounced the country she remembered when she was still too young. The Portugal of the submissive, manipulated woman, of the woman without direction, of the housewife. And, at the same time, of the erotic, mysterious, unshakeable woman. In her courageously political work, Paula Rego was always the voice of the voiceless. The voice of conscience and transgression which, not infrequently, emerges from the sexual strength of her characters. In her hands, as the daily "The Guardian" noted, "the brush is more powerful than a sword".
Artists who have made the figure of women their main subject are rare. Her portraits can be counted on the fingers of one hand, which has made them absolute rarities. This is the case of the portrait recently won at an auction of contemporary art promoted by Christie's in London. The painting of British writer and art programmer Fiona Bradley, described by the auctioneer as being "a magnificent tribute to the friendship" between the painter and the current director of The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, was sold for 266 thousand euros.
No work in the studio is a portrait. Everything there is theatrical, everything staged by Paula Rego. "What I really like is to tell a story in my paintings, even if that story changes while I'm painting. Sometimes I only discover the story after I've finished painting."
Despite her enormous passion for stories, Paula Rego recognises that she has a strong connection with the very rare people she has portrayed: "When you draw a person, they give you a lot back. Sometimes they give us so much that they flood us with their personality and their soul. We can hardly stop them from doing that."
Do you want to know which people have had the privilege of being portrayed by Paula Rego since she graduated from the Slade School of Art in the early 1960s of the last century? LUXIMOS Christies International Real Estate gives you the answer and clears up a misunderstanding.

1. Jorge Sampaio, Portuguese President of the Republic

Jorge Sampaio


Emotional attachment is not an essential part of the job, Paula Rego assures us. But with Jorge Sampaio (1939-2021), who was president of the Republic between 1996 and 2006, the emotional bond was strong. They were friends. And the head of state had the courage to invite her to do his official portrait. Paula Rego managed to paint a magnificent, very unorthodox official portrait. But it was not at all easy, the painter told "The Guardian". "Painting the portrait of the President of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, almost killed me," she confessed. She changed the place where she was painting to continue elsewhere, because she couldn't stand the constant interruptions from the President's team.

2. Germaine Greer, Australian writer

Germaine Greer


Another of the portraits she says she had a hard time making was the painting of the writer Germaine Greer (b. 1939), recognised as one of the most important feminists of the 20th century, especially since, in 1970, she published the book for which she is still acclaimed today, "The Eunuch Woman". In 2018, again to "The Guardian", Paula Rego admitted having been terrified by the assignment to portray her. "At one point I went to the office I have in the studio, knelt down and prayed. I was so scared, I couldn't paint. Still, I decided to continue," she recalled.

3. David Hare, English playwright

David Hare


In the case of British playwright David Hare (b. 1947), screenwriter twice nominated for Oscars - with "The Hours" (2002) and with "The Reader" (2008) - the process was different. "Not because he was a man, but because he was really a very different person. David told me he was part of a choir when he was a kid. So, I decided to give him a lamb and a staff, as if he was a shepherd", Paula Rego told us. The result was a portrait, as she herself admits, which looks like a religious image. 

4. Fiona Bradley, British art programmer

Fiona Bradley


Fiona Bradley has, since 2003, been director of The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Before that, she was a curator at the Hayward Gallery and at the Tate Liverpool. It was in this context that she met Paula Rego who later ended up portraying her, in a work auctioned in October by Christie's. "Richly crafted passages of layered colour inject the model's flesh with a visceral luminous quality, capturing the play of light and shadow in her form. She looks away, one hand behind her head, as if caught in a moment of daydreaming," the auctioneer described.

5. Portrait of Grimau, Spanish policeman



The word "portrait" in the title of the work misleads the most distracted. "Portrait of Grimau" is not a portrait of the Spaniard Julián Grimau, executed in the early hours of 20 April 1963. Grimau was a policeman who joined the Communist Party shortly after the Civil War broke out, for which reason he was denounced and arrested. He was tortured by the police until he was in a coma. The international community came together as never before to beg dictator Franco to release him. By learning the story, Paula Rego builds a disturbing picture, using drawing and collage, taking a stance on one of the most tragic and bizarre episodes in Spain's contemporary history.
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