A Q&A with our Curator Sophie - Paula Rego: Literary Inspirations Exhibition

We've been speaking to our Curator, Sophie Yaniw, about her experience curating the exciting Paula Rego: Literary Inspirations Exhibition
What is the exhibition about?

Petersfield Museum’s unique exhibition is about the brilliantly outspoken British-Portuguese artist Paula Rego, and the stories by which she was inspired to escape the oppressive environment in which she grew up, into a world of her own creation.

What is it about Paula Rego's work in print that is so fascinating to you? 

I love print because works in this medium are always so imaginative – think of the Symbolists or Francisco Goya. As Rego has said, ‘when I’m drawing on the etching plate it’s more to do with what’s in my mind rather than looking out at what’s in the world.’ Printmakers are storytellers and as a fellow ‘story junkie’, I’m always pulled in by this sort of work.

How is Paula Rego influenced by literary works? 

Stories offer an alternate means of interpreting reality to the censored messaging Rego heard when growing up under the dictator Salazar. Rego would imagine she was a character in her favourite stories, and as that character she was free to do or feel as she pleased. She could be ‘what one doesn’t dare to be oneself.’ She doesn’t illustrate books but rather changes the narrative so that they tell her own story - the literary works are very much at her service and not the other way around.

Why do you think Rego so often depicts children? 

Having never felt able to speak her mind, Rego’s primary concern is freedom of thought. Children have not yet experienced enough of the world to know that not everything is possible. They live in a world in which magic exists and all doors are open – they are ultimately free. Apart from the fact that they are not independent or in control of their own destinies. Paula Rego depicts children who are in control, who play the role of adults, in order to imagine a world full of freedom and hope.

Why do you think the people of Petersfield will enjoy this exhibition of Rego's work? 

I think we’re very lucky to have this work in Petersfield. Rego is a truly original artist but there are so many entryways into her work: she is one of the foremost figurative artists of our generation, she is a peerless storyteller, she is inspired by stories that many visitors will be familiar with, she is a feminist and outspoken on social and political issues, and her work so often exudes her mischievous sense of humour.

What inspires you most about Paula Rego as an artist and her own personal journey? 

I was surprised to learn how shy Paula Rego is in person, because what I find most inspirational is how as an artist, she is uncompromisingly herself. She draws for herself, without pretending to create pictures that are universal. What she achieves is diametrically opposed to Salazar in Portugal; her pictures set the rules for her own experience and no one else’s, so we are completely free to make up our own minds. Some have commented that this is why looking at Rego’s work can be difficult at times; we don’t always enjoy having that freedom and want someone else to tell us how we should feel.

How was your experience curating the exhibition?

Curating this exhibition has been the high point of my career. During my undergraduate degree, I studied feminism and identity and went on to do a master’s in Art History, in the hope of being able to share work like this. Marco Livingstone, one of the lenders, was an author of one of my core texts, so to work with him, and Stephen Stuart-Smith, has been such a pleasure. The more I learn about Rego and the more of her work I see, the more I love, and I hope visitors to the exhibition will feel the same.

Finally, what's your favourite piece from the exhibition and why?

That’s a very difficult question. I love Girl Reading at Window from Jane Eyre – the image we chose for the poster and cover of our catalogue. Rego’s narrative approach is emphasised by separating device of the curtain, either side of which are different parts of the story. I love how serene Jane looks, with her book, and can imagine her being transported to another world by the engravings of Thomas Bewick, if it’s his book that she’s reading. I also love the colours, which Rego often added to draw viewers in, especially when the subject matter might otherwise put some people off. Another of my favourites is Flood from Pendle Witches, perhaps for a similar reason - again, this woman looks remarkably serene in the midst of such destruction.

To hear more from Sophie, we highly suggest reading her essay, Paula Rego: Orphan of Meaning, in the exhibition catalogue - available in The Shop at Petersfield Museum.

ourtesy Paula Rego and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London ©️ Paula Rego

Courtesy Paula Rego and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London ©️ Paula Rego
Paula Rego: A Curator's Guide - 18th May

Enjoyed the Q&A? For more on Sophie's experience curating this exhibition, join us and celebrate the Museum's 23rd birthday with this special look at our thought-provoking exhibition, 'Paula Rego: Literary Inspirations'.

Sophie will discuss the joy and privilege of bringing an internationally renowned artist to Petersfield Museum’s Flora Twort Gallery. This talk will also provide an insight into the creative process by the artist, who, inspired by her favourite works of literature, tells a story that is authentically her own.


Paula Rego: Literary Inspirations Exhibition

23 March - 9 July 2022

One of the most important figurative artists of our time, Dame Paula Rego (b.1935) is also a sublime and inventive storyteller. Following a major retrospective at Tate Britain, Petersfield Museum is pleased to announce an exhibition of Rego's work in print, a medium in which she found great imaginative potential. Displayed alongside Paula Rego's graphic work will be the stories that inspired her, in artist's books published by Enitharmon Editions. Rego uses novels, poems, plays and history books as a starting point for her printmaking, 'like you put on a coat, and then to stand the cold'. Stepping out into the cold, Rego tells her own story; one in which the hero loses and the underdog prevails, and she free to explore her wildest fears and fantasies. 

Museum Admission included in ticket price.