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Paula Rego, Artist Known for Unsettling Images, Dies at 87

by News Desk

Paula Rego, who in extraordinary artworks across 70 years could be menacing, unsettling, playful or all of those at once, her paintings suggesting macabre stories but inviting viewers to fill in the details, died on Wednesday at her home in North London. She was 87.

The Victoria Miro Gallery, which represented her, posted news of her death on its website, calling her “an artist of uncompromising vision” who “brought deep psychological insight and imaginative power to the genre of figurative art.” No cause was given.

Ms. Rego was especially known for works addressing the plights and perspectives of women, among them a series called “Dog Women” begun in 1994, an “Abortion” series from 1998 and 1999, and “Female Genital Mutilation,” from 2008 and 2009.

Her art was prized by museums and sought after by collectors. In 2015 her painting “The Cadet and His Sister” sold at Sotheby’s in London for 1.1 million pounds, or about $1.6 million.

Just last year Ms. Rego, who was born in Portugal but lived for much of her life in England, was the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Britain in London, which included more than 100 paintings and prints.

“Each and every one is subtly disturbing without it being clear quite why,” Michael Prodger wrote in a review in The New Statesman. “It is hard to think of a recent exhibition that is both so enthralling and sends you scuttling away with a sense of something malign on your shoulder.”

The works in that exhibition included “Cast of Characters From Snow White” (1996), a menagerie of incongruous figures including Snow White herself, rendered with an unnervingly adult face and stocky calves.

“This,” Eleanor Nairne wrote in her review of the show in The New York Times, “is painting with the subversive edge of a contemporary fable, fresh from the imaginative depths of a wicked national treasure.”

Maria Paula Paiva de Figueiroa Rego was born in Lisbon on Jan. 26, 1935, to Maria de São José Avanti Quaresma Paiva, who had studied painting at the Lisbon School of Fine Arts, and José Fernandes Figueiroa Rego, an electronics engineer.

She was born during the early years of the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, a regime that repressed women.

“It was a fascist state for everyone,” Ms. Rego told The Associated Press in 2004, “but it was especially hard for women. They got a raw deal.”

She grew up around the seaside town of Estoril and was painting while still a teenager, already conscious of the struggles of women in Portugal. The earliest work in the Tate show, made when she was 15, is called “Interrogation” and depicts a seated woman who, surrounded by vaguely threatening male forms seen only from the waist down, clutches her head in despair.

When she was 17, she told The A.P., her father, an outspoken liberal, gave her some advice: “Leave Portugal. This is no country for a woman.”

In 1952 she began studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she would remain for the next four years and where she met a fellow artist, Victor Willing, whom she married in 1959.

Ms. Rego and her husband lived in Portugal for a time when they were first married but eventually settled in England, though Portugal and its political and social situation continued to be reflected in her paintings. Of her childhood in Portugal, she once said: “A lot of it is in my pictures. Quite a lot of it.” One frequently cited abstract work, from 1960, is called “Salazar Vomiting the Homeland.”

Mr. Willing died in 1988. By then Ms. Rego’s career had begun to take off. She had had her first solo show in Portugal in 1965, but a solo show at Air Gallery in London in 1981 brought her substantial notice in England. A 1988 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London cemented her standing as a leading artist.

Her works were full of imagery inspired by children’s stories, the animal world, mythology, and her family and marital life.

“My paintings are stories,” she told The Independent of London in 1991, “but they are not narratives, in that they have no past and future.”

The figures in them might be fearful or they might be threatening. Often it was up to the viewer to decide. Her 1998 work “Angel,” for instance, depicts a woman with a sponge in one hand and a sword in the other. Is she offering cleansing, or an evisceration?

Her “Dog Women” series, 14 pastels exhibited in 1994, depicted women in doglike poses — snarling, sleeping, standing watch. Her “Abortion” series later in the decade was a response to a failed referendum to legalize abortion in Portugal.

“It’s doubtful that anything more wrenching will be seen in paint this year,” Godfrey Barker wrote in 1999 in The Evening Standard of London when the “Abortion” series was exhibited in Madrid. “The canvases reveal the grotesque aftermath of a woman who has had an abortion. She is seen in a dozen postures of numbed despair and disbelief after the surgeon’s interference, the aborted life casually present in a bucket.

“The supporting cast is sketched in, from the grim one-night seducer to the seen-it-all midwife. Nothing that Paula Rego has done, to date, matches these pictures for power, solemnity, psycho-horror and skilled modeling in paint.”

Ms. Rego is survived by three children, Nick, Cas and Victoria Willing, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In 2009 in Cascais, west of Lisbon, a museum devoted to Ms. Rego’s work and that of her husband opened, but she didn’t want it to be called a museum. Instead it is the Casa das Histórias — the House of Stories.

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