The Paula Rego documentary ‘Secrets and Stories’ (BBC 2) directed by her son Nick Willing, was never going to be the usual detached academic and clinical dissection of a painter and their work, and that is what made it so compelling. The relationship between director and subject quite naturally enabled a highly personal insight into the life of a notoriously shy painter. Willing places Rego at center stage, her meandering monologue acts as if a fascinating gift, painstakingly and delicately unwrapped. What is revealed is exactly as the title suggests, the secrets and stories of a life at times bold and fragile, humorous and dark, loving and tragic, so often reflected in the complexities and often autobiographical narratives of Rego’s own paintings.
Not dwelling on the painter’s eventual international success, Willing focuses on the earlier years of Rego’s life, her childhood, her life at the Slade, her pregnancy, marriage, affairs and widowhood. This is not a film focused on fame, but about the interweaving relationships that create a human existence. Willing, acting as gentle inquisitor, engages the viewer by sharing his quest to illuminate a mother who was at times both secretive and distant. Each stage of Rego’s life is pondered on, the painter’s, at times, wistful recollections accompanied on a chronological journey by relevant artworks, personal snapshots and home movies. All, in turn, not only permit the viewer to establish connections between the painter and her work, but to unravel who Paula Rego actually is.
That unraveling inevitably reveals Rego’s experiences in life and in art as shaped by her womanhood. Rego describes a repressive, middle class Portuguese life as one in which women were highly encouraged to do nothing, while working class women were forced to do everything. The painter recalls girlhood as a time of learning obedience to men, in addition to secretive and confused messages about puberty, sexual abstention and female middle class propriety. Subsequently, after leaving 1950’s, then fascist Portugal (described by her father as a ‘killer society for women’), to attend London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Rego recollects an era including coerced sex leading to many secretive back street abortions. Her affair with highly regarded and married painter Victor Willing proved life changing as she was forced to leave for Portugal when pregnant and deserted by the male artist, who she eventually married.
Speaking candidly to her son, Rego recalls her marriage as a complex mixture of artistic support, love, unfaithfulness, secrets and fear of abandonment, later further complicated by Willing’s debilitating health problems. The documentary includes recollections of the painter’s two daughters whose anecdotes, despite their obvious respect and admiration, reflected their feelings of distance from a mother preoccupied with her work (a circumstance rarely negatively associated with Picasso or Lucian Freud for example). The artist herself commented on her own inability to provide absolute caring attention for her children and husband, an expectation of duty for many woman and one which often prevents career success.
Rego highlights her use of art as therapy, after lifelong anxiety and depression, a history she shares with her father. In her paintings, for example, her father becomes a comatose figure and incapacitated Victor is depicted as a dog to be treated with a cruel kindness. In artworks, Rego calmly states, you can ‘let all your rage out’, her coping mechanism. Despite her anxieties however, Rego’s strength, determination and own experiences are exemplified in her ‘Abortion’ series highlighting the horrors of unsafe abortion after the failure of the 1998 referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal. Rego recalls the whispered secrets of women in the gallery while looking at her paintings. In turn, after being shown in Lisbon, her work actually helped change both public opinion and the law in 2007.
Somewhat eccentric, steely, shy and charming, Rego, the gift, is slowly revealed. The scratchy super 8 films of the younger artist’s hedonistic pleasures, dancing with Victor and friends, interspersed with the almost silent concentration of footage of present day older Rego still in the studio, reflect a women’s lifetime of experience and creativity.
‘Secrets and Stories’ is both a sensitive and honest conversation between mother and son, and also artist and viewer, that should not be missed.
Available to watch in the UK for a limited time: