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My growing success leads to my own version of the Vivian girls

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The symbolism of the animals in my paintings
Paula Rego Artist
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When Vic was little he... he was brought up in the army. And in the army camp he’d made a little theatre and he had a... a monkey, a bear and a dog with one ear. And he would make a story inside this little theatre for the soldiers to see and every time it was different. And I said... I rang him one day, because he was at home because he wasn’t well enough to get up, and ‘I don’t know what to do next, I don’t know’. And then he told me this story. I said, ’That’s fantastic’ and so I began to do... I did that story but then, of course, the people, the monkey and the bear and the dog with one ear became people I knew, you know, that always happens. All these animals become people I know and the thing becomes rather personal really. So I was able to... because if you make them into animals you can do anything, can’t you? Like the girl and the dog. Like the girl... the dog was because of Vic. It was just looking after Vic because she... he was very sick then and again, a friend said — Colette said — ’Why don’t you do something about Vic’. And I thought, well, okay, well then I thought well, I got a dog, you see, because you see, like the dog... when you open a dog’s... when you feed medicine into a dog you have to open his mouth by force, like this, and then put in the medicine. And I thought there’s both... there’s tenderness, there’s curing, there’s tenderness and there’s aggression because, you know, holding the mouth open is aggressive and... So I thought that all those things together were... were like what it was like at the time, you see, because there were so many mixed feelings about somebody who’s very ill. You... you, no matter how much you love them, you resent them dreadfully for being ill and you want to care for them anyway. It... it was what I did, was the girl with a dog, it was all about Vic. And then it led on to other things and so-on. And, in the meantime, I met Rudy Nassauer, who became a very, very good friend and was an enormous... an immense help to me because, first of all, he took me to Italy to look at proper art, not just the one in the National Gallery, to Florence, to Venice, and so-on, to look at the real thing. And he... he said, ’Listen, you must stop buggering around, I mean, you must stop just fooling around, you must just work... just work. And... and I did and he was a very, very strong... very strong influence, a bit of a bully but, that’s what I needed. He was good. He was fantastic at arguing and passionate about his points of view... Yeah... you know... Yeah... But I remember when you were at the National Gallery, that wonderful picture that you did of him in the... Yeah, that was to bring him into the limelight, you see. I did... because... because he was... it was a relationship which was like, you know, I’m not married to Rudy, he’s my friend, but it’s not... it’s not... I thought, but he needs... he needs... it was a homage to him and it was a homage to Rudy to bring him... put him in a picture of... it Joseph sleeping. And it was after Philippe Champaigne. And I did... and he sat for me several times and I did drawings of him and I put him in this picture. And I did... he wasn’t just the bear, he was now the man, you see. I’d... I’d stopped him being an animal and put him into a man and then he was out... it was, you know, shown so that was good.

Portuguese painter Paula Rego, became part of the London Group in 1965, was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1989 and became the first Associate Artist of the National Gallery in London in 1990. Her work is strongly influenced by folk and fairy tales, especially those of her homeland.

Listeners: Catherine Lampert

Catherine Lampert is an independent curator, art historian and Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts. She was director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery (1988-2001) and has been a model for Frank Auerbach since 1978. Her recent projects include exhibitions of Rodin (Royal Academy 2006) and Lucian Freud (Dublin, Denmark and The Hague 2007-2008) as well as a book on Francis Alys (Turner Libros) and a catalogue raisonné of Euan Uglow's paintings (Yale University Press 2007).

Duration: 4 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2007

Date story went live: 17 July 2008