Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Lisbon, Portugal, 1908 – Paris, France, 1992

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva settled in Paris as a painter, where she met her husband Arpad Szenes. She became one of the most acclaimed abstract artists in post-war Europe, due to her original geometrised compositions. After a period of exile in Brazil during World War II she was given French nationality. She spent the rest of her life in this country, where she obtained the most important national artistic prizes. Vieira’s career also includes important public art commissions and works in scenography, tapestry, stained glass and illustration. Her complete work has been subject of countless retrospectives and can been seen in institutions across the globe.

A lonely childhood among adults, punctuated by travels abroad and days spent in her grandfather’s library, soon fostered in Vieira da Silva the need for artistic imagination. She was taught music, drawing and painting at home by tutors. Interested in sculpture, she also studied anatomy at the Medical School of Lisbon. Fearing the stagnation of her art, in 1928 she headed to Paris with her mother to study sculpture with Bourdelle, then assisted by Richier and Giacometti, and later with Despiau. Vieira would ultimately concentrate on painting, studying with famous artists such as Fernand Léger and Roger Bissière, and learning to engrave in the renowned Atelier 17 of S.W. Hayter. As a child, Vieira had decided to become a painter after visiting England, and her process of artistic discovery and experimentation would remain attached to constant travelling in this period of formation, during which she married the Hungarian painter Arpad Szenes, in 1930. In spite of considering Matisse and Cézanne as the great Modern masters, the most conspicuous impact on her painting resulted from a long a long and intense relation with the work of the Uruguayan Torres-García she discovered in 1929. Across the following decade, Vieira’s painting gradually withdrew from the real, first absorbing and then expelling human presence, until reaching the borders of abstraction. With her idiosyncratic language and an interest in the representation of space, Vieira transformed metaphorical motifs such as chessboards or card games in complex grid-like compositions with strong visual ambiguities.

Her first solo show took place in the Galerie Jeanne Bucher (1933). Two years later, António Pedro presented the work of Vieira da Silva in Portugal, where she stayed for a brief period. Upon returning to Paris, in October 1936, she participated in the “Amis du Monde”, a group of Parisian artists united against the threat of far-right politics in Europe. Vieira’s painting also changes, substituting perspective for grids and other visual structures that emphasise the composition’s architecture, with lines that interweave labyrinthically. As the threat of war grew closer, her subjects became more political, particularly when, stateless and married to a Jew, Vieira da Silva was forced to return to Lisbon (1939). However, Salazar’s government denied her Portuguese citizenship, and the couple had to leave for exile in Rio de Janeiro (1940-1947). There they exhibited, taught, and befriended Brazilian poets such as Murilo Mendes and Cecília Meireles, and painters like Carlos Scliar. Even so, this was a period of drastic decrease in Vieira da Silva’s artistic production, having resorted to figurative options that were lacking the boldness of her former abstractions, precipitating her to come back to France.

A fundamental change takes place in Vieira’s career when the French State acquires one of her works (1948), an official recognition that was followed by a thriving and diversified artistic production, collaborating with writers such as René Char, creating sets for Arthur Adamov’s Theatre of the Absurd, or painting the sculptures of Germaine Richier. Towards the late 1950s, Vieira da Silva was already internationally hailed for her lyrical compositions, conciliating figuration and abstraction in a highly personal language that recalls, but never identifies with, the paysagisme abstrait of Bissière or Bazaine. Repeatedly evoking the theme of libraries, cities and labyrinths, the structural motifs and inexpressive colours of Vieira’s pictures seemed to be icons of the post-war Existentialist alienation.

Although she belonged to the School of Paris, Vieira da Silva would only become a French citizen in 1956, around which time she reached the peak of her acclaim, exhibiting all around the world and being awarded with consecutive official honours from France. She was made Chevalier and Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1960 and 1962) and received the Grand Prix National des Arts (1966), in addition to having won the International Award of Painting at the Biennale of São Paulo, Brazil (1961). Retrospectives of her work multiplied in Europe (Hannover, Bremen, Wuppertal, in 1958; Mannheim, in 1962; Grenoble, Turin, in 1964; Paris, Oslo, Basel, Lisbon, at the Gulbenkian Foundation, in 1971), and she was invited for numerous projects: the execution of her first tapestry by the illustrious Manufacture de Beauvais (1965), the decoration of the stained glasses of the Saint-Jacques church in Reims (1966), the design of posters on occasion of the April Revolution in Portugal, edited by the Gulbenkian Foundation (1975), and of the International Year of Peace, on request of the UNESCO (1986). The Portuguese Government distinguishes Vieira with the Grand Cross of the Order of Sant’Iago de Espada (1977) and she is commissioned the decoration of the Lisbon subway station “Cidade Universitária”, in which she is assisted by Manuel Cargaleiro (1988).

The last days, spent working in her Parisian studio, no longer accompanied by Arpad, were also the time for the highest recognition of her lifetime achievements. She was elected Member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London (1988) and made Officier de la Legion d’Honneur, with insignias handed personally by the French President François Mitterrand (1991). In Lisbon, the Arpad-Szenes-Vieira da Silva Foundation was created (1990). Besides being featured in Portugal’s foremost art collections, her work is also represented in some of the most prestigious museums worldwide, such as the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), the MoMA and Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Tate Collection (London), the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid), the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago), the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) or the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo (São Paulo).


Afonso Ramos

February 2011

Updated on 20 april 2023

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