Paula Rego - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, April 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Overview

    'The aunt has a room of her own, so I placed the story there, setting everything up in the studio and then copying it. […] The only figure painted from someone real is that of the heroine, reflected in the mirror.' —Paula Rego 

    Enthused by the literary and cultural visions of the 19th century, Paula Rego has, over her prolonged career, built a distinct visual language that twines various historical references with elements of her own life. Mirroring aesthetics from an era past, The Aunt (Nada) depicts a scene inspired by Carmen Laforet’s celebrated novel Nada, published in 1945 in the author’s native Spanish, and subsequently translated in English in the mid-2000s – the version Rego read. The text follows the upbringing of an orphaned girl, Andrea, who goes to study at her aunt's house in Barcelona, and initiates a number of complex friendships in the city. Andrea’s family is, as Rego describes it, ‘the most dysfunctional family […], and poor. The aunt is a difficult woman and a figure of authority, but she is also vulnerable because she is having an affair with a married man’.i  Congregating the various figures that make up Laforet’s story, including ‘a grandmother and (…) a little boy who is very sickly’, the present composition attests to Rego’s ability to convey the emotional possibilities enabled by literature – herein aligning a sense of composure with underlying tension, passages of tenderness with hints of ferociousness.ii It furthermore demonstrates the artist’s propensity to utilise fiction as a means to unveil personal truths.


    Photograph of Paula Rego in her studio in Camden, London.    Image: © Gautier Deblonde.
    Photograph of the present work in Paula Rego's studio in Camden, London. Image: © Gautier Deblonde.

    From Lisbon to London


    Moving beyond the specific contours of Laforet’s coming-of-age novel, Rego incorporates her own imaginings within the existential tableau — hints of her lived experiences growing up in Portugal, and suggestions of her subsequent life in London, as she occupied a unique position in the art scene of her time. Indeed, studying at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1952 to 1956, Rego began to familiarise herself with an unknown city, whilst simultaneously honing her artistic craft. Following her studies, she emerged as the only female artist from the London School in the early 1960s, working alongside such celebrated male counterparts as Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach. In 1989, succeeding numerous successful exhibitions, she became the first artist-in-residence at the National Gallery in London. A testament to her exceptional impact on the canon of art during that time and later, The Aunt (Nada) was included in Rego’s eponymous retrospective – her most comprehensive at the time – travelling from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arts Reina Sofía, Madrid, to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., from 2007 to 2008. In June 2021, the artist will once again command the public’s attention through a highly anticipated monographic show at Tate Britain, London – the largest and most ambitious to date.


    Portrait of the artist with the mirror portrayed in The Aunt.

    Storytelling as Catharsis


    Although The Aunt (Nada) is not auto-biographical, the work is, like many from Rego’s oeuvre, rooted in personal experiences and memories, devising sinister fantasies and transformed realities. Left in the care of her grandmother almost immediately after her birth, as both her parents moved to the United Kingdom for her father’s work, Rego grew up in a household of women. Alongside her grandmother, she lived with her great aunt — who suffered from manic depression — a governess, and a series of maids. It was only in the early 1950s that she moved to England and adopted London as her primary residence. In the 1970s, creatively uninspired and without a sou, Rego began experiencing a period of inner tumult. This resulted in her commitment to a Jungian analysis in 1973 – a psychotherapy that rekindled her interest in folk tales and storytelling. (Throughout childhood, Rego had cultivated a passion for otherworldly literary genres as a means to balk against solitude). 



    Familiar Fairytales, Unnervingly Unfamiliar


    Winning a Gulbenkian Foundation research grant in 1975, and undertaking a six-months research period at the British Library, Rego further delved into the origin of folk tales, notably reading early fairy stories by the genre’s forefather in Europe, Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Displaying an unsettling sense of self-awareness, as well as a subversive, almost enchanting presence, the protagonist in The Aunt (Nada) demonstrates Rego’s ability to transfer the meandering subtleties of her psyche onto the medium of painting, whilst at the time invoking the magical realism she repeatedly turned to in moments of hardship. In an exhibition entitled Les Contes Cruels de Paula Rego at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, a life-size sculpture echoing The Aunt (Nada)'s subject matter propelled the aunt, mirror, chicken and other elements making up the present composition into a three-dimensional realm. In the context of Rego’s inspirations for this show and thus for the subject matter of The Aunt, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou described the artist’s unique artistic imaginings as ‘familiar fairytales made unnervingly unfamiliar’.iii 

    'Rather than nihilism for its own sake, Rego’s courage in making the darkness conscious through her art appears as a form of service – to herself, to other women, and to the Portuguese nation.' —Zoe Pilger

  • Painterly Symbolism


    Staring intently at the viewer, with a steadfast grasp on the frail body falling at her knees, the eponymous protagonist in the composition appears both familiar and distant, existing as the skilful amalgamation of real and imagined traits. 'I made the figure of the aunt myself’, Rego elucidates. ‘Her head is based on a photograph I saw of a woman who I thought looked stern and interesting. The only figure painted from someone real is that of the heroine, reflected in the mirror’.iv This specific element of the mirror, reflecting the one character that Rego culled from her tangible surroundings, draws the viewer back to reality, whilst simultaneously conveying art historical associations that conjure yet another realm of visual manifestations. Indeed, the presence, purpose and angle of the mirror in The Aunt are redolent of Diego Velazquez’s ingenious use of the object in The Toilet of Venus, which similarly offers a unique view of the model’s face through its magical surface.


    Diego Velazquez, The Rokeby Venus, c.1648-51, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. Image: Bridgeman Images.

    Around the aunt’s imposing stature, the composition brims with rich detail taking the form of objects, animals and human silhouettes. At her feet, a sulking dog sits beside a supine chicken, itself pointing towards a lonesome violin. Adding narrative complexity to the story that is at play, these elements reveal Rego’s versatile approach to figuration, melding instances of realism with passages of surrealism. They convey Rego’s fondness of folk tales, fairy stories, Goya-esque images, and traditional painterly tropes, replete with symbolism.




    i Paula Rego, exh. cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arts Reina Sofia, 2007, pp. 274-5.

    ii Paula Rego, exh. cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arts Reina Sofia, 2007, pp. 274-5.
    iii Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou, ‘Cruel To Be Kind’, Women: A Cultural Review, January 2019, reproduced online.
    iv Paula Rego, exh. cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arts Reina Sofia, 2007, pp. 274-5.

    • Provenance

      Marlborough Fine Art, London
      Private Collection, London (acquired from the above on 18 October 2006)
      Sotheby's, London, 15 December 2010, lot 105
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arts Reina Sofía; Washington D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Paula Rego, 25 September 2007 - 25 May 2008, pp. 245, 274-275, 281 (illustrated, pp. 245, 274)


The Aunt (Nada)

pastel on paper laid on board
180.1 x 119.8 cm (70 7/8 x 47 1/8 in.)
Executed in 2006.

Full Cataloguing

£800,000 - 1,200,000 

Contact Specialist


Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021