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Mary’s cross: a previously unpublished interview with Paula Rego

by
15 July 2022

To mark Paula Rego’s death last month, this is a previously unpublished interview from 2002, in which she talks of her ‘Stations of Mary’s cross’ with Richard Zimler

JOSÉ MANUEL/MUSEU DA PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICA

Paula Rego’s Nativity (all 2002, Belém Palace, Lisbon)

Paula Rego’s Nativity (all 2002, Belém Palace, Lisbon)

Richard Zimler: Do you have a religious family background?

Paula Rego: My father didn’t like the way we were indoctrinated by the catechism; so he always stopped me from being taught the catechism in school.

Did you have to get a special dispensation?

No, it was not a religious school. I did go to lessons, but when it came to studying for the first communion — we used to do that after school — he discouraged me from it. My mother used to go to mass, and I went with her. We had complete freedom.

I read that you did the first communion in secret.

I did, after all the others had finished. I went to confession and did it, just to take part.

In your adult life, your entrée into the story of the Virgin Mary would be through your reading. How did the idea for these pastels come to you?

It wasn’t my idea: it was the President of Portugal’s idea. I would never have done it if I hadn’t been asked.

What was your first reaction when he asked you?

Scared! And excited. I’d been looking for a church for some time to do, because I’d been doing saints for a long time, since I was artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, in London. But the stories don’t come from reading as much as from pictures — from that whole tradition in which people learned the Bible from pictures.

JOSÉ MANUEL/MUSEU DA PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICAPaula Rego’s Annunciation (2002, Belém Palace, Lisbon)

Was part of your original fear that you were about to start a project that has been a tradition in Western art for thousands of years? And that you would have to deal with Giotto, Caravaggio, and the legacy of many other artists?

Yes, it is a tradition, and the question was: how do you update the story? In a sense, you can’t, but what you can do is see it from the point of view of a woman, which is what I’ve done. A woman telling the story — in fact, Mary telling the story.

So you see these as Mary’s version of events?

Yes, it is about Mary, not about Christ. The story celebrates her — in her own right. That’s what I tried to do.

One of the things you’ve done is bring Mary back to her body. She is not an ethereal figure, but a woman who experiences the shock of being told about her destiny and the pain of childbirth.

Well, the story is a human story. What makes it transcendent, in fact, is its human qualities, and that’s what I find moving about it.

Yet there’s a tendency to forget that Mary and Jesus were people, and to reduce them to iconic or clichéd images. In that case, we lose what the story can mean in our own lives.

The whole point in that story was that Jesus was a man, and Mary was a woman giving birth — he comes from outside her. They are people! They don’t come from outer space. They are flesh and blood.

Which of the pictures turned out most differently from the original conception?

The Adoration, because I originally had shepherds and a lot of outdoors. I ended up making up the picture with the people and objects I had around me. I never did any preliminary drawing of the Assumption, where she is being taken up to heaven.

JOSÉ MANUEL/MUSEU DA PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICA Adoration: “I originally had shepherds and a lot of outdoors,” Paula Rego said

That’s my favourite of them all. There is a great sense of movement, of her falling back in shock. One thing I find curious is that the angel seems too slight to carry her.

In the tradition of painting, you have these little boys, these putti; yet they have the power to carry people up to heaven. Sometimes they are only head and shoulders — tiny things — but they have the power to carry anything. They are magical, and I relied on that.

The movement you mentioned is terribly important, because it’s at the end of the whole row of the pictures. You have to have movement that works across the pictures. And, at the end, for the last one of the series, I wanted something that was violently leaning, and that somehow had an exaggerated movement.

She’s going up to heaven, but she’s astonished. And she’s perhaps a little fearful as well. Below the angel, there’s a deep black hole. . . The Virgin Mary is rising to heaven, but underneath her — underneath them — might be a black gap.

The youthfulness of the angel and some of the other figures also seems to bring them back to their bodies and to make the story relevant for our present lives.

The model for the young Mary was my granddaughter. In Michelangelo’s Pietà, she is also a girl. Here, she’s holding a very young boy. It could be a Christmas play or street theatre. By having young figures — even children — their vulnerability becomes much more.

They are both kids in over their heads. They are both frightened of what their fate has been.

Absolutely true. “In above their heads” — well put! They’re both in the same boat. The whole story of her life has been astonishing, and in the Pietà the sorrow she feels seems mixed with a bewilderment of how all this has come to pass.

JOSÉ MANUEL/MUSEU DA PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICAPurification at the Temple

Did you worry about the reaction of people in Portugal to these youthful figures or the pastels in general?

Not at all. It never comes into your mind. I was just concerned if I could do it.

And yet you’ve heard some criticism.

Not from the President, or the Church. Only from individuals who are used to Bible illustrations done in a Victorian style. Having something that isn’t done in the style is disquieting to them.

Maybe people don’t necessarily want to be reminded that this is a myth that is present in their everyday lives. Yet if the story is going to have power, it has to have relevance to each of us, today, as we live.

Of course. That’s how it survives, because people identify with them.

Do you think people are frightened of identifying with the Virgin as a woman?

No, I really don’t. They pray to ask the Virgin to do something. They must see her as a woman.

But I can imagine some resistance to the Lamentation, for instance. Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a contemporary prostitute, with a mini skirt.

She’s a working girl, but that doesn’t make her any less holy. It’s redemption through suffering and sin.

The figure of the Virgin in that pastel is very Portuguese — with her headscarf.

Quite a number of the figures throughout the series are. For instance, in the Purification at the Temple, the woman in black with the handbag who is standing next to the Virgin is almost grotesque and comical. But I risked it.

So you didn’t feel you had to stay away from the comical?

You don’t stay away from the comical, because this is a story of everyday life. I mean, artists have done it before — Stanley Spencer and Caravaggio. Why not be a bit funny? That figure is somewhat vulgar really. She’s wearing a bad-taste hat. She may be a waitress in a restaurant, or something like that.

JOSÉ MANUEL/MUSEU DA PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICAFlight into Egypt

In the Adoration, you have a tiger-skin rug that the people next to the Christ-child are sitting on. It fits another old tradition, in which Christ is the birth of the spiritual man or woman in each of us. He represents the possibility or rising above our animal nature — of our need for procreation and food. He is the next level of consciousness.

I didn’t know that. I must remember that!

It brings me to your use of symbolism. In the Adoration, for instance, the baby Christ holds a snake in his hands. Were you very conscious of symbols you wanted to add or omit as you did these pastels?

It all happened unconsciously. The tiger rug was given to me because friends of mine couldn’t sell it at Christie’s: it’s too politically incorrect to have stuffed animals. But when you mix animals up with human figures, it’s always much more interesting visually, because your identification with each creature is different.

A variety of forms is important. My granddaughter who was the model for Mary was playing — just by chance — with a wooden snake I had in my studio; so I said let’s put it in.

In putting in, did you think consciously of what you might be evoking?

Yes, and I said leave it, that’s really good. I wouldn’t have chosen it myself. But now that you’ve chosen it, let’s leave it.

I saw in photographs that you even had a pair of wings in your studio for your model to wear.

They are amazing! They’ve got a harness you put on the shoulders that’s buckled in front. At one point, I thought: shall I leave the harness on? But I thought it would be too much.

Leave the harness in your picture?

Yes. But I took it out.

It would change the whole feel.

Of course, it would! And it would bring in something else that was unnecessary. But the model had to wear it to play the angel — like in the Nativity. That pastel gives us the Virgin with her legs apart, suffering the pains of childbirth.

JOSÉ MANUEL/MUSEU DA PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICALamentation

Obviously, these works touch on your own experience as a mother.

Of course. I think every woman feels it, that’s why we can identify with her. We all know it’s like that — to be pregnant is upsetting and frightening. She’s frightened and yet she’s accepting.

And she’s got a very helpful angel. Her guardian angel — that’s what he is. They say it’s Gabriel, but I think it’s her guardian angel.

In the Nativity, Mary is lying across the thigh of the angel in this very difficult moment. It’s particularly beautiful how the angel is helping her.

In the story I read, Joseph calls a midwife called Salome, and, when she touches the girl, her hand withers. The angel comes and says, “Don’t worry. If you touch the baby after it’s born, your hand will go back to normal.” The angel helps her.

Solidarity is present through the entire series. In the Lamentation, for instance, there’s the kinship between Mary Magdalene and the Virgin, sharing the same feelings of sorrow.

That comes out with the guardian angel, who helps Mary all the way through. Some people say they are all playing a part, but it’s less theatrical than you might think.

That’s what you could have done if you had put in a harness.

Yes, and it wasn’t a good idea. Especially not in a chapel. It would have been silly here — post-modern, or something dreadful like that.

You’ve told me that you are particularly attracted to perverse stories. But that’s one thing you’ve stayed away from here in the Virgin series. Nothing even slightly perverse about them.

Not at all perverse, which is good — to be able not to do that.

JOSÉ MANUEL/MUSEU DA PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICAPietà

You don’t want to be typecast.

Exactly. I’m pleased and amazed I was able to do them. And you know, the hardest one was the first one — the Annunciation.

I have five versions of that one, because I couldn’t get it. The one here was the first version. I did the figures, and then I put in the background, which reminded me of those Indian religious paintings, the ones with the very bright colours. Then I said, “That’s it!”

A mystery exists when there is bright colour, equally as if there is shadow and light. And it’s so much more interesting if the colour is lurid. So, I thought, “Let’s do it.” And I used it for all of them.

Which makes the palette similar throughout.

Yes, like the sky in the Pietà. I would never have done bright colour before. Or the violet with the yellow in the Annunciation.

We haven’t talked about the Flight to Egypt yet, and there’s something curious in that one. Who are the two figures in the background?

Mary’s mother is on the left, watching her go. The man at the top is taking her — it’s Joseph in the story.

The Virgin is obviously the “star” of these pictures.

(laughing) Yes, she’s the star. But you have to have Christ there as well.

Yet, in the Lamentation, you don’t show him on the cross. Why?

How can you do a Crucifixion? If you do one, it upstages everything. You cannot put it in this series. And it’s not necessary. The crucifixion is there in the lamentation, but it’s out of the picture. So, you concentrate on Mary.

What’s there is the ominous shadow from the cross.

Yes, and it has a glow on it from the sky. But it’s not red. That would be very crude. The red of the blood of Christ is on her scarf. The red has moved somewhere else.

The reflection on the cross is from the sky that’s in the next painting, the Pietà, which gives them a nice feeling of needing to be in this precise order.

They were done in this order. They are the various stations of Mary’s cross, if you like.

JOSÉ MANUEL/MUSEU DA PRESIDÊNCIA DA REPÚBLICAAssumption

When people visit the chapel, what would you like them to get from the whole series?

I hope they’ll feel in here a good company — good and helpful company. You don’t even have to look at the pictures particularly carefully, because they are all around.

The pictures will stay here for ever?

Yes, for ever. They belong to this chapel.

Are you happy to see them in Portugal?

They couldn’t be anywhere else!

Why?

Because they are Portuguese pictures. They are about how Mary is in Portugal. There’s a great cult of the Virgin Mary here. People talk to her and ask her things all the time. And she appears all over the place. The cult doesn’t exist in England. The pictures belong here.

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