The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum in New York have expanded their collections of Paula Rego’s graphic work. Each institution has acquired the artist’s complete series of ten Abortion etchings. Further prints from the group have joined collections at the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, New York and Grinnell College, Iowa.
This comes at a time of political turmoil in the US. The right leaning U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned the constitutional laws on abortion, reversing Roe v. Wade, the court’s five-decade-old decision that granted women the right to obtain an abortion. The UK has also recently experienced abortion injustices after a woman was jailed in June for illegally obtaining abortion tablets to end her advanced pregnancy. The mother of three, who is 45, was handed a 28-month sentence after she admitted to obtaining abortion pills to induce a miscarriage when she was 32 to 34 weeks pregnant in 2020. She is due to be released from prison after Britain’s Court of Appeal reduced her sentence.
“It highlights the fear and pain and danger of an illegal abortion, which is what desperate women have always resorted to. It’s very wrong to criminalise women on top of everything else. Making abortions illegal is forcing women to the backstreet solution.” Paula Rego, The Guardian, 2019.
In 1998 a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal failed. Paula Rego, who spoke openly about her abortions in the past and had seen people suffer after undergoing illegal terminations, was angry with the outcome. In response, she created a body of work, including paintings, pastels and etchings.
Her eight etchings, which appeared in several Portuguese newspapers in the lead-up to a second referendum on abortion in 2007, brought the debate back to women’s experience, drawing attention to the dangers of making abortion illegal. The effect of the series was so powerful that it has been credited with helping sway public opinion to form a second referendum in 2007 which legalised abortion.
The power and pain conveyed in these etchings seem only too relevant today. The late Paula Rego, a prominent Portuguese-British artist, created a series of powerful and provocative artworks known as the “Abortion Series” in the late 1990s. These graphics, done in a mix of pastels, charcoal, and acrylics, explore the sensitive and controversial topic of abortion with her characteristic blend of narrative, symbolism, and emotional intensity.
The “Abortion Series” comprises a collection of works depicting women in various pregnancy stages, undergoing abortions or facing the repercussions of such decisions. Rego’s distinctive style incorporates surrealism, expressionism, and storytelling elements, creating haunting and emotionally charged compositions.
The artist’s personal experiences and her profound empathy for the struggles faced by women informed the series. Rego was a staunch advocate of women’s rights and reproductive freedom, and her art served as a vehicle to express her perspectives on these issues.
Throughout the series, Rego employs imagery that is simultaneously disturbing and captivating. She portrays women in moments of vulnerability, often accompanied by menacing and grotesque figures representing societal pressures and judgment. Her use of dark, contrasting tones heightens the emotional impact of each piece, reinforcing the gravity of the subject matter.
The “Abortion Series” received acclaim and controversy when it was exhibited in various galleries worldwide. Rego’s unapologetic approach to abortion challenged conventional views and sparked debates about reproductive rights and women’s autonomy over their bodies.
While the “Abortion Series” graphics are undoubtedly challenging and thought-provoking, they also testify to Paula Rego’s exceptional artistic talent and unwavering commitment to using art for social commentary and reflection.
As with many works that tackle controversial subjects, the “Abortion Series” remains an essential and enduring part of Paula Rego’s artistic legacy, stimulating dialogue and encouraging society to confront complex issues surrounding women’s reproductive rights and choices.
A new exhibit exploring the relationship between Dame Paula Rego’s monumental painting and the 15th-century altarpiece and National Gallery staff that inspired it. Thirty years ago, Dame Paula Rego (1935–2022), the National Gallery’s first Associate Artist (1990–2), was commissioned to create a mural for the then-new Sainsbury Wing Dining Room
On view 20 July 2023 – 29 October 2023 – Free National Gallery Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN