I caught the repeat on BBC2 of Nick Willing’s film, Secrets and Stories, about his mother Paula Rego, a useful pendant to the recent retrospective at Tate Britain – a long interview interspersed with images of her at work and film of her younger self. What was obscure at Tate became clear: the autobiographical sources of her art and the way she exorcised her demons through painting. She inherited her father’s disposition to depression and admitted that her childhood was full of fears.
Willing said that until her eighties Rego was almost secretive about her life, but then she began to tell stories. The cause of her reticence may have been the way her experiences motivated her. If she talked she wouldn’t have painted. Well-adjusted people aren’t great artists.
The film was informative about Victor Willing, Rego’s husband. It was he who was tipped for artistic stardom at the Slade, not her, but as his inspiration withered, hers grew, and he enouraged her without jealousy.
Rego followed an undistracted figurative course through post-war fashions to become one of our greatest artists, but we saw here that she took 25 years to make the paintings we recognise her for. Not unconnected with her greatness is the fact that her talk was free of artbollocks. There was no wish to impress, to which lesser artists are prone, no conventional jargon, no theorising. She said what she felt and believed. Everything was real.