Maria Helena Vieira da Silva had the rare privilege to be considered very early on as one of the great names of abstract painting without seeking to be recognized as such.
- Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, one of the great names of abstract painting
Selection of works by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
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She was from a bourgeois family – her grandfather was the founder of The Século, the largest daily newspaper in Lisbon. Her father who was a diplomat died when she was two years old. Her mother and aunt raised her and did not oppose her artistic direction. Her childhood was punctuated by many trips abroad: England (1913) where she saw a representation of “A Midsummer’s night dream’ in Hastings that remained a strong memory and also to Switzerland and France. She studied the piano and music had a key role in her life. In 1917, she attended the Russian Ballet shows in Lisbon. At the age of eleven she started drawing with Mrs. Emilio Santos Braga and in 1922 studied painting with Armando Lucena, Professor at the Fine Arts school of Lisbon. In 1924 she studied sculpture. 1927, she was a passionate anatomy student and attended the course taught by the school of medicine in the context of the teaching of fine arts.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva decided to work in Paris where she arrived in 1928.
She enrolled in Bourdelle’s sculpture lessons at the Academy of the Grande Chaumière and exhibited for the first time at the Salon of French artists. She was very impressed by the Bonnard exhibition at Bernheim Jeune, and discovered Sienese painting on a trip to Italy. In 1929, after a few months in Despiau’s workshop at the Scandinavian Academy, she left sculpture and resumed painting studies with Dufresne, Waroquier and Friesz who taught in the same place. She began engraving in Hayter’s workshop in the evenings. Attended the Academy of Fernand Léger, created fabric designs in a workshop in rue des Petits-Champs, as well as abstract patterns for carpets. In 1930 she married the Hungarian painter Árpád Szenes who she met at the Grande Chaumière Academy. The couple lived in Villa des Camélias (see text Szenes). Together they visited Hungary and Transylvania. Around 1931, they attended meetings of the ‘Friends of the world’ group of Communist sympathizers interested in social art. They became friends with several artists including Hayden, Pignon, and Estève. They spent each summer in Portugal until 1939.
The inner thought process began here – comparable to a reverie.
Through a plastic universe made of silence and light, she developed graphic architecture subject to the laws of gravity and the three dimensions where leveraged or constricted space emphasizes this attraction to emptiness. Several events help to implement a very personal point of being to the artist’s signature or very vocabulary. In 1931 in Marseille, the metallic architectures of the (now defunct) Transporter Bridge were a ‘revelation’, as she often explained. Through them, she perceived the fragmentations of space.
The following year she met Jeanne Bucher, whose Gallery was in rue du Cherche-Midi.
The famous merchant presented the Uruguayan painter living in Paris, Torres García’s work. This artist led the “circle and square” movement and she saw his works at Pierre Loeb. His geometric paintings were based on patterns and rhythms, symbols and shapes. Vieira bought some works that she never sold. They wrote to each other when Torres Garcia returned to his country in 1944. He helped her when she and her husband fled to Brazil. All of this simultaneously awoke childhood memories such as the homes in the narrow streets of her hometown, and those newer Sienese paintings designed like colourful mosaics.
Another important influence was azulejos – these little squares of multicolour ceramic used in Portugal to decorate houses interiors and exteriors and with which Vieira – who had an exceptional collection – decorated part of her workshop, leveraging this open space with infinite colour. Similarly the scaffolding of buildings under construction, their tubular frames, metal train station halls, the subway, a fascination for the cities, railways, interlocking etc.
From 1935 Vieira began writing.
Themes included that of the labyrinth in which she takes us, both setting and denouncing traps through the gossamer fabric of a room with multiple closed exits. Her paintings like “The Workshop”, Lisbon, 1934 (private collection), and especially the “Plaid Room”, 1935 (collection J. Trevelyan, London) are very characteristic. Converging lines of graphism with underlying transparent sides that rapidly systematize into a checkerboard. Resolutely non-figurative, she is at the very centre of her creations, as an intermediary between her emotions, her vision of the outside world and the viewer. One of Vieira’s works requires several interpretations. From her finely honed sensitivity and linear universe arises balance that opens up onto a mirror to the void and the secret of our memories within the confines of graphical borders.
A world of waiting and stillness…
The complexity of her canvasses lies in her singular way of fragmenting space, overlaying, mixing and diverting the plans attached to the emotional value of the line, its orientation on the surface, but also the introduction of the time factor in the space-surface alliance which takes us back to a world of anguish, fluctuations, constraints and choking. In this era of struggles, doubts and speed, Vieira da Silva’s work betrays a relevant understanding of the realities of our time. In the progression of this theme we can name “The Card Game”, 1937 (Jeanne Bucher Gallery, Paris), “The Forest of Mistakes”, 1941 (Marian Willard Johnson collection, New York) and “The Chess Game”, 1943 (Museum of Modern Art, G. Pompidou Centre, Paris).
In 1932, she attended Bissière’s classes at the Ranson Academy.
The following year, Jeanne Bucher organized her first personal exhibition. Preparatory notes, a few paintings and a Christmas tree decorated with subjects designed and cut by the painter were presented around ‘Koko’, a children’s book by Pierre Guéguen illustrated with stencils. Her first exhibition in the UP gallery in Lisbon was held in 1935. The couple stayed until 1936. Vieira and Szenes showed abstract works in their workshop in Lisbon. In 1937, a second Vieira exhibition in the Jeanne Bucher Gallery now located boulevard de Montparnasse. Marie Cuttoli, who created a weaving workshop in Algiers asked Vieira and Szenes to make copies of Braque and Matisse with whom they had long conversations about colour.
In 1938, the household moved to boulevard Saint-Jacques. With the troubles they moved to Portugal having entrusted the custody of their workshop and their works to Jeanne Bucher. In June 1940 they set sail for Brazil and moved to Rio de Janeiro where they lived until 1946. They were engaged in Brazilian intellectual life and their workshop became a place where they influenced young artists. Vieira exhibited several times, and in 1943 created ceramic tile decorations for the agronomic University restaurant. In 1946 she had her first exhibition in New York at the Marian Willard Gallery organised by Jeanne Bucher.
In March 1947, Vieira and her husband returned to France.
In June the Jeanne Bucher Gallery organized an exhibition. Pierre Loeb visited her workshop and showed strong interest organizes an exhibition In the Pierre Gallery in June 1949. In his preface, Michel Seuphor wrote: “little by little, embroidering her familiar theme, Vieira da Silva has created an irreplaceable art, a rare condition of painting. Something is there which was never expressed to date: a space without dimensions, both limited and unlimited, a mind-blowing mosaic which each element is equipped with an inner power that immediately transcends its own matrix. Each dot of colour has a dynamic content but the whole canvas tells the force”. The Gallery exhibited again in 1951 and in 1955 with a presentation by René de Solier – “in Vieira da Silva’s painting, despite the presence of the world, the elements of the work itself, the “objects” of her paintings, are considered as seen and “felt” from the inside. There is a sort of reverse hold, the removal of the blind world and the creation of a state, an intermediary day-night reign.
She was discreet in France and exhibited gouaches with Reichel in the Hune Bookstore-Gallery in 1950, the Blanche Gallery in Stockholm in 1950, Dupont Gallery in Lille in 1952, Redfern Gallery in London in 1952-1953, Cadby Birch Gallery in New York. Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam with Germaine Richier in 1955, Gallery Saidenberg in New York and Gallery of Modern Art in Basel. 1956, Perron Gallery, Geneva (catalogue René Berger), Hanover Gallery, London, 1957, first retrospective at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover in 1958 then presented at the Kunsthalle of Bremen and Wuppertal (catalogue), Gallery Knoedler (catalogue Guy Weelen), New York, 1961. She then stayed in New York (which inspired her greatly) for the first time, 1963 and 1966, Phillips Art Gallery, Washington DC. 1961 and 1963, Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1962.
In 1951 the Jeanne Bucher Gallery in Paris presented a set of gouaches for the publication of Et puis voilà, stories told by Marie-Catherine Bazaine to her doll (Editions J. Bucher). Vieira did not exhibit again until 1960, prefaced by René Char. A large and glowing press welcomed her back: Frank Elgar in Carrefour, November 30, 1960, Waldemar George, “the imaginary space of Vieira da Silva” in Combat, 17 November 1960, R. Van Gindertal, Beaux-Arts Bruxelles, 2 December 1960, Jacques Lassaigne in Pensée française, no. 12, New York, December 1960, Guy Weelen in Pour l’art, no. 71, Lausanne, May-June 1960, among others, until René Barotte committed to the defence of traditional figurative painting titled “triumph of an important French painter” in Paris-Presse l’Intransigeant, September 26, 1961.
In 1961, the Gallery exhibited 25 chisels illustrating “Distant Inclemency”, René Char’s poems. This ensemble was then presented in New York, Washington, and in 1963 the Gravura Gallery in Lisbon and at the Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem. Other exhibitions were held at the Jeanne Bucher Gallery in 1967 (catalogue, Gaétan Picon preface). 1969-1970, “Resolved indecisiveness”, major charcoals, poem preface of Michel Butor. At the same time the Jacob Gallery exhibited a set of gouaches from 1945 to 1967. In 1971, recent temperas on the occasion of the release of Dora Vallier’s book “Vieira da Silva’s painting, approach paths” (Editions Weber). Reissued by Galilee in 1982, the Gallery exhibited a series of drawings. 1986, “density and transparency”, recent paintings, preface by Jean-François Jaeger.
She was invited to participate in group exhibitions.
We can name: 1952, ‘New school of Paris’, Babylon Gallery, Paris, by Charles Estienne. 1953, “Vieira da Silva, Ph. Martin, H. Marshall ‘, Kunsthalle, Bern (catalogue). 1954, “Bissière, Schiess, Ubac, Vieira da Silva and Germaine Richier ‘, Kunsthalle, Basel, preface Pierre Guéguen. 1955, biennale of Caracas, was awarded third. 1950 and 1954, Venice Biennale. 1952-1955 and 1958, Pittsburgh International Exhibition Carnegie Foundation. In 1962 won the grand international painting prize, Biennale of São Paulo. Salon of May 1952, 1953, 1954, 1957, 1959, 1961, 1962, 1965, 1967, and the New Realities salon. “School of Paris”, Gallery Charpentier, in 1954, « Night Space », 1955, 1956 “The Cathedral”, 1957, “Port in the North”, 1958, “The Big Workshop’.
In 1948, by acquiring “The Chess Game”, the State inaugurated a regular procurement policy for the works of Vieira da Silva.
“The Library” (1949), “Hanging Gardens” (1955), “Summer or Composition grey” (1960) and others followed. Just like the provincial museums: ‘Icy Lock” (1953) in Lille, “The Towers” (1953) in Grenoble, “Rouen” (1966) in Rouen. Extending her creation to other areas, Vieira da Silva worked on tapestry producing full-size cartoons over a period of several years. She won first prize for Tapestry in the University of Basel in 1954 (tapestries exhibited in Basel in 1960), her works were accomplished under the direction of Marthe Guggenbull, then for les Gobelins, Beauvais, Aubusson.
Following a proposal by Jacques Lassaigne, she made his first stained glass window at the Jacques Simon workshop in Reims in 1963. It was acquired by the State. She created other windows in 1968 and 1971 with Charles Marq for the St. Jacques Church in Reims.
The artist always created engravings. In 1955 she executed a series of prints in René Bértholo and Maria Lourdes’ workshop. She tackled lithography in 1971, then exhibited the same year at the Jeanne Bucher.
She was naturalized French in 1956.
Since 1956, Vieira worked and lived in a new house built for her by the architect G. Johannet on land acquired in the 14th arrondissement. From 1954, Guy Weelen, the art critic who became a friend of the couple when they met in 1949, was responsible at Vieira’s request, for the distribution of her work so that she could devote herself entirely to her art. Then a long project began that continues today to classify archives, catalogue works, write a biography (first edition in 1960, then in 1973, Hazan), and finally to support the organization of exhibitions and their hanging.
Excerpt from “The School of Paris, 1945-1965 Dictionary of Painters”,
Edited by Ides and Calendes, (1993, republished in 2010)
Courtesy of Lydia Harambourg