The Buck stopped here

Secret life of Paula Rego on show at Marlborough and on the Beeb

By Louisa Buck

“It’s not very cool to thank your Mum when you make a movie,” declared Nick Willing before the lights went down at last night’s (13 March) preview screening of the feature-length documentary film he has made about his mother, the artist Paula Rego. “But you were quite extraordinary… and hopefully this shows just how extraordinary you are, too.” 

Indeed it does. Paula Rego: Secrets & Stories, which will be broadcast 25 March on BBC2, is an exceptional, intimate and utterly captivating film, that ranges across the art and life of one of our greatest living artists. There are secrets and stories in abundance as Rego talks freely, frankly and often for the first time about growing up in the repressive environment of 1940s Portugal, about her family, sex and abortions, and the details of her complicated relationship with her husband, the artist Victor Willing. She even shares the letter that Willing left for her to read after his early death from multiple sclerosis in 1988, which she kept close to her heart for the next 20 years. Throughout, we see how Rego puts her traumas into her art and turns difficult emotions into images. “The fear goes into the pictures… in my pictures I could do anything,” she says.  “Work is the most important thing in life; it is for me.” 

Paula Rego's Mermaid (2007) from her Depression Series

One of the film’s many revelations is Rego showing—and her son seeing—for the first time the series of drawings that she made in 2007 during a particularly savage bout of depression and then locked away in a drawer. Now, as well as being unveiled on camera, these 12 large pastels of a woman fearful, alone, constricted—and in one case taking the form of a beached mermaid—also went on view last night at the Marlborough Fine Art gallery (until 1 April). The making of these drawings helped Rego to recover, and now she hopes that by putting them on view they may be helpful for others. Like so much of her art, they may come from a very private place but they can speak powerfully and immediately to all of us.