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Does having children interfere with the artistic process?

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Abortion as a subject matter in my pictures
Paula Rego Artist
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Many years ago, I did a drawing, which was called The Angel of Mercy, which is a... a woman — middle aged women — with wings, with a bowl in her hands, scooping out something from inside a girl. It was a long time before I... before the Portuguese referendum, there was a referendum in Portugal, because abortion is illegal — was illegal — in Portugal, ‘til the 11th February this year? And there was a referendum to legalise it, and nobody bothered to go and vote. They were much too shy or scared to be seen. There was a lot of pressure from the... what they call Pro Life people there — the church actually — and I thought... and they didn’t bother to pass the law, they didn’t pass the law. And I thought, well, this is... this can’t... this can’t do... this is absolutely... it makes you enraged, because it’s total hypocrisy, it’s... when I was in Ericeira, living with my husband, the fisherman’s wives used to come and ask me for money to have an abortion, because they already had like, seven children and so on. And they... lots of them had septicaemia, and... and some of them died. They were mucked up for life. And it was a regular thing in Portugal, where you... you, you know, you weren’t supposed to have abortions, but it was the easiest place to get one; everybody had them, it was total hypocrisy. Total hypocrisy. And I thought I wanted to do something about it, so I did these pictures of girls having abortions. I decided to make them into schoolgirls, because very often, quite young women — who were still at school — have foetuses dropped down the lavatory, for instance, and so I decided to put them in uniforms, school uniforms. So I went to John Lewis, I got all these little frocks and uniforms, and so on, and we started doing a series of... of people having abortions actually, quite explicit, but no blood. I don’t...  didn’t want to have blood or anything like that, because that works against it, it makes it melodramatic. So I wanted to have it quite clinically shown, and... and I did... I did do it. I did it with Lila, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of having done.

It’s terribly important that... that women have the right to choose, very important. And important in Portugal, as it is everywhere else in the world, although now there is a campaign against it, which... which has to be stopped. And of course, there was another referendum, the government changed it in the meantime, and there was another referendum in Portugal recently. And I’m glad to say that... that some newspapers used my pictures even, it was just wonderful, as, you know, propaganda. And this time the law was passed. And now it’s not illegal anymore, now we’re going to have problems getting doctors to... to go along with it, but... in a hospital bed. But at least it’s law, it’s law, it’s not illegal, people don’t get arrested, you know, 'cause they used to arrest, not only the nurses who performed, but the girls who had it. Hmm. Exactly. Great big bodies were turning up on the beach, floating, you know, with their tummies all swollen after they’d been... they’d had these abortions done by their boyfriends, and things like that. Don’t I know it, you know, they turned up in Ericeira, like they were swollen cows, they’d sometimes turned up. Anyway, so I’m very pleased. As I... the pictures were not... I think there were about 10 pictures done, I said, ‘Well they would probably sell, and so I will do prints’. So I did a whole series of etchings, using the same... I... I didn’t copy the pictures, I reset the scene all over again, and did the plates straight from the figure, and I use those now, whenever necessary. I send those as a... as a... really, it's like a form of propaganda. But it’s important, so, yeah, you know. And I mean, and I’ve... I’ve got every right to do it, and in any case I’m a woman, and you know, one knows things like that.

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, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2007

Date story went live: 17 July 2008