The Policeman's Daughter, 1987
According to Paula Rego's memories of a Portuguese childhood, wealthy women were pressurised to do nothing and working-class women to do everything. Not happy with either of these prescribed roles, Rego endeavoured to be and to depict in her art a different type of woman. She used her art to campaign against restrictive abortion laws and authoritarianism in all its forms. In The Policeman’s Daughter, the reality of living in an authoritarian Fascist Portugal (1935-74) is addressed in a very personal way. Making art for Rego was a very personal experience.
The Policeman's Daughter
In this striking painting, a young woman sits on a chair and polishes a jackboot. She is alone, except for the black cat. The paneless window is without a view.
In the late 1980s, Paula Rego made a series of paintings that explore close family relationships. All the relationships seem somewhat dysfunctional, particularly those between the fathers and the daughters.
The Policeman’s Daughter is angry, her hand rammed into her father’s boot as she cleans it. A drawing for the painting (on right) shows its genesis in a relationship that is a little more innocent – a younger girl, cradling the boot as she cleans it, a toy castle symbolising security at her feet. In the painting, the castle has become a mistrustful cat, and the pose of the girl, taken from a sexually-explicit Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, anything but innocent. Rego discusses this perspective with art historian Robert Hughes in the video.
The boot looks to be part of the uniform of the military police of dictator Salazar's Portugal. During the regime, Salazar maintained control of the country through the use of secret police, as well as police informers. Portuguese citizens lived in fear that their friends or neighbours would report them for dissident acts and that they would be taken away.
Though this young woman may only be polishing the boot, this painting asks questions about collaboration - do we see her as equally to blame in her father's actions?
Can she too be held responsible for crimes against humanity?
The domestic feel of the interior space, the bare white room and presence of a family cat also demonstrates how political power structures readily invade the home.
Rego exposes how power and corruption can pervert and conquer even the most commonplace and innocent of activities.
The young woman's face is passive and we do not get a sense of her agency; we can only note the act itself as if the overarching repressive regime has successfully eradicated active personality.
Here the confines of the interior space are particularly surreal.
The tight inclosing perspective makes the viewer feel claustrophobic and recalls works by Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte.
Robert Hughes interview Paula Rego about The Policeman's Daughter
About Paula Rego
Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, three years into the dictatorship of Salazar.
Her father, José, was an electrical engineer and her mother, Maria, had studied painting. When Rego, aged three, was diagnosed with incipient tuberculosis, the family moved to the seaside town of Estoril whose coastal vistas feed her work.
Her father opposed the Salazar military dictatorship and the Catholic Church, which conspired to control women. Rego was never a Catholic: "I was baptised, but my father wouldn't let a priest teach me. I pray when necessary - but I don't like the Pope; the way they forbid birth control is shocking."
Her father came to work in the UK, and Paula Rego went to school in Kent and the Slade in the 50s. Drawing and painting dramatic emotional stories, she was praised for presenting a female point of view, and became the first associate artist at the National Gallery.
Rego's work has evolved from early oil paintings through collage and acrylic (she hates the smell of oils and turpentine) to what she calls pastel paintings, but her abiding love is drawing. She sees printmaking, of which she is an acknowledged master, as an extension of that.
A wide selection of Rego's work can be seen at the Saatchi Gallery, London, UK.
Rego lives and works in London.