Paula Rego: Letting Loose | Victoria Miro

Around a year ago, I wrote about a very affecting Victor Willing show. He was a painter of some extraordinarily claustrophobic scenes, produced in the 1970s and 1980s in a windowless East London studio, while the artist was suffering from worsening multiple sclerosis symptoms. At the time, Willing was married to Paula Rego, then and now a much better-known painter. On the evidence of this exhibition, her paintings of that time couldn’t have been more different: free, expansive and utterly confident of line, where Willing’s were constrained, tentative, introspective.

Animals, humans, and some hybrids of the two caper across Rego’s large paintings, a dozen or so are on show at Victoria Miro at the moment. Some are on paper, some are on canvas - they’re all carefully composed but also somehow spontaneous. Loose, as the show’s title has it. Clearly produced quickly, fluidly, from the imagination.

Paula Rego ‘In and Out of The Sea AKA The Raft’ (1985) In and Out of The Sea AKA The Raft (1985)

One series dramatises opera performances (Rego used to accompany her dad to the Lisbon opera house as a child, before she moved to the UK to study). Another features girls roughhousing with some vicious-looking dogs. All are brightly coloured, with thick, matt brushstrokes. The lines are confident and sure.

Intriguingly, the show notes make the case that Rego’s 80s artistic flowering was actually stimulated by the burdens of her personal life. It’s hard to connect these bright scenes with the artist’s increasingly sick husband, painting his disturbing images in his studio. Something else was going on. The girls and beasts and colours lurked in Rego’s dark subconscious, but she had the strength and skill to render them in bright acrylic paint, make them into something new, freeing herself from them. It must have been especially satisfying for her that it was these works that really made her artistic name, both in the UK and abroad.

“I think it was only after my private life came back into the work that things began to get a bit better,” Rego, who died in 2022, once said. “It was like freedom again.”

Paula Rego: Letting Loose is at Victoria Miro (London). 22 September - 11 November 2023