The interview mostly conerns Paula's cycle of paintings of the Virgin Mary; they created a small controversy in Portugal, where I live (and where Paula was raised), and Paula was eager to have her own say about them. We met at the chapel in the Presidential Palace where the paintings were hung (and still hang).
Here is an excerpt:
Do you have a religious family background?
My grandfather was anti-clerical, although his godmother was the Virgin Mary because
there was no one else available. He was also a Republican but sensibly superstitious. My
father didn’t like the way we were indoctrinated by the catechism, so he always stopped
me from being taught the catechism in school. Well, not entirely – we used to have Irish
priests at St. Julian’s School [in Carcavelos].
Did you have to get a special dispensation?
No, it was not a religious school. I did go to lessons, but when it came to studying for the
first communion – we used to do that after school – he discouraged me from it. My
mother used to go to mass and I went with her. We had complete freedom.
I read that you did the first communion in secret.
I did, after all the others had finished. I went to confession and did it, just to take part.
In your adult life, your entrée into the story of the Virgin Mary would be through your
reading? How did the idea for these pastels come to you?
It wasn’t my idea, it was the President of Portugal’s idea. I would never have done it if I
hadn’t been asked.
What was your first reaction when he asked you?
Scared! And excited. I’d been looking for a church for some time to do, because I’d been
doing saints for a long time, since I was artist-in-residence at the National Gallery in
London. But the stories don’t come from reading as much as from pictures – from that
whole tradition in which people learned the Bible from pictures.
So you accepted immediately?
I had to walk next door and back again. My first reaction was no way. And then I
thought, I’ll have a go.
Did you come to Lisbon to look at the space?
No, the people at the Presidential Palace sent me the plans for the chapel with the
measurements. I had to have those to be able to envision the pictures. If it’s big it’s very
different than if it’s small. And I read the Golden Legend again. It’s a book by Jacobo
de Voragine, and I first used it while I was at the National Gallery to do my pictures of
saints. Then I sat down with the sketchbook and put down what came into my head. It’s
jolly difficult squeezing it out sometimes!
So how long did it take for you to complete the pastels?
About three months.
Was part of your original fear that you were about to start a project that has been a
tradition in Western Art for thousands of years? And that you would have to deal with
Giotto, Carvaggio, and the legacy of many other artists.
Yes, it is a tradition, and the question was, how do you update the story? In a sense, you
can’t, but what you can do is see it from the point of view of a woman, which is what I’ve
done. A woman telling the story – in fact, Mary telling the story.
So you see these as Mary’s version of events?
Yes, it is about Mary, not about Christ. The story celebrates her – her in her own right.
That’s what I tried to do.
One of the things I think you’ve done both to update the telling of this story and tell it
from Mary’s point of view is bringt Mary back to her body. She is not an ethereal figure
but a woman who experiences the shock of being told about her destiny and the pain of
Well, the story is a human story. What makes it transcendent, in fact, is its human
qualities, and that’s what I find moving about it.
Causes Richard Zimler Supports
Save the Children, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)