This surreal painting by Rego is her response to seeing a group of impoverished firemen in the town of Alijo in Portugal over Christmas and new year 1965-6. Huddled together against the cold, Rego was struck by their bare feet and the traditional straw-stuffed jackets that they wore, their faces blackened by soot. She has described her painting as a tribute to their roles as unpaid volunteers, and portrays them as surreal figures in bright colours that look simultaneously animalistic and mechanical, yet distinctly human.
The Firemen of Alijo
Date of work
Original: Acrylic paint, oil pastel, charcoal, graphite, resin, ink, paper and aluminium foil on canvas, 1539 × 1843 × 45 mm, Tate. Purchased with assistance from Evelyn, Lady Downshire's Fund 2000 © Paula Rego
Paula Rego was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1935 and has travelled between London and Portugal throughout her life. She studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, and throughout her career she has revolutionised the way in which women are represented, playing a key role in redefining figurative art in the UK and internationally. Her early paintings in Portugal were semi-abstract, sometimes applied to violent or political subjects that revealed a love of story-telling that had been awakened in her as a child by folk-tales related by a great-aunt. She is drawn to subjects that are well known, and takes her imagery from sources as varied as Peter Pan and Mary Magdalene. Her work is part of many public collections, including Tate’s collection.