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I belong in my studio

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Creating subjects for my work
Paula Rego Artist
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I have very few models. I have a girl I’ve worked with — who used to look after Vic— called Lila Nuñez, she nursed him, and she very quickly sat for me, for all sorts of things. And now, we work regularly on... she’s a podiatrist now, but she works for me on Fridays and Saturdays, and sometimes on Mondays, and she is essential. Not only is she essential, she knows what to do. She knows more about... as much about the picture as I do. She sits in the right position, she... she does the right thing, you know, and she knows what’s going on. It’s fascinating, ‘cause we’ve worked so long together now, okay. So I have her, and I have one or two other people. Tony comes in and sits for me if I need a bloke, then he comes and sits in, and that... but, I find lately, that since The Pillow Man and even before that, since the rabbits of the Iraq war... oh well I turned a photograph in The Guardian... it was in The Guardian, of a girl screaming. And a girl screaming in front of far... above smoke, looked exactly like my cousin, Manuela, with a bib and everything, and I thought: crikey, this is totally recognisable. And I... I wanted to do a picture with... using this scream, but couldn’t use a girl. I... I used rabbits, I used rabbits, I used a mother rabbit holding a baby rabbit, because then you... you can do damage to the creatures, without making it melodramatic or maudlin, like, you can take... the eye comes out, and all sorts of things like that. Because they’re toys, they’re animals, creatures, you can do all these things to them. So I found that I got very involved in making props in fact, creatures, which I used as if they were figures, as if they were people. They are people to me. And I find that, more and more I’m interested in doing that, you see, creating these... these creatures. And... and I mix them with people, I find it’s quite important to have a person in there, ‘cause it somehow emphasises the difference and makes it more... more mysterious, or something. But I’m... I’m very, very involved now, in making that... in making the... these creatures, yeah. I haven’t got round to doing... I once did a cat, but it fell to pieces, it was hopeless. So I’m not good at modelling, but I’d like to learn, actually, a bit more.

My... my son-in-law encourages me, and sometimes helps me, Ron... yeah, so that’s, you know, that’s how it’s... that’s how it’s going at the moment. But it wasn’t always like that, that’s quite a recent thing since I saw that extraordinary play, The Pillow Man, and that... that changed my life, really. Changed my life, that. And I’m using pastel, as well, that was another change. Using... a dog-woman was my first pastel I ever did, well, not the first, the second. And again, this time it was not changing people into animals... it was changing people into animals, but the person herself became an animal, so she squatted like a dog. That is actually... the dog is a pet, he’s fed and looked after, but it can bite, and... and how it can bite. And not... it’s not lack of gratitude, it’s self-defence, actually, in order to survive. You’ve got to learn to bite, more... more than you do... than you’re capable of sometimes, but the tendency is towards submission, rather than... than a good bite. Avoidance. Exactly, a good whack. And so therefore, this dog... this dog came from a story of an old woman who had a lot of pets, and she lived in a house by the sea — isolated — and she’d hear a child’s voice coming down the chimney telling her things. And one day the child’s voice came down, and said: ‘Eat them, eat them’. And the pets started running round the table, running round the table, and the woman squatted down on all fours, opened her mouth and all the pets went in there, and she swallowed them... all of them. And that’s what became my dog-woman, you see. And then one day, I was with Lila, and I said... just like that, I said, ‘Oh, just squat there Lila’ and she squatted. I did a sketch as quickly as... as, you know... and that was... and I thought, oh. And then I was going to put it in another picture, to... to use it up, and somebody said to me, Joáo Penaloa said to me, what you using before, it’s already... your picture’s already got enough things in it. So I thought: well, I’ll do it by itself, so I... I squared it up; I used to have to square things up to get them to fit into the canvas, you see. I don’t have to do that anymore, because the body... in front of the space, you’ve got a drawing, be it paper or canvas, is better... better... has better feeling of the proportion of things, so I can do it directly. I don’t have to square things up anymore, which is a blessing. I used to... I squared it up and I drew it on and then, I... I started using pastel, you see, and I... I’ll sit for it myself, so I bent down, and I did my knee, but of course, it’s impossible, so I had to ask her to come and just get in that position. And then I did her. I did the dog-woman, and the dog-woman grew from being a dog-woman... she was always a dog-woman, she became waiting for food, sleeping on her owner’s coat, bad dog ‘cause she’s messed the bed and she’s been kicked out of the bed, and... and all sorts of things. And they were very much things to do with my love for Vic, I think, and... good... they were good... good love, not bad love, but how things are. And they were about a very close relationship, what goes on, and that... but from... from obviously, the woman’s point of view, or rather the dog’s point of view in this case, it's equal. Woman equals dog, you know. It’s the hierarchy of things, you know. You’ve got the father, the mother then you’ve got the... the children and you’ve got the dog.

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: 7 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2007

Date story went live: 17 July 2008