[open the box] Maria Helena Vieira da Silva


One imagines her frail in the enormous house in the Rua da Emenda. One cannot help thinking that this house, with its beautiful sweeping staircase, around which the house itself was designed, was fundamental for that particular sensitivity that Maria Helena Vieira da Silva always had. There are paintings that almost tell the story of that extraordinary spatial perception, that remarkable talent for understanding the poetics of space.

In 1939, after Portuguese nationality had not been granted to her husband, the painter Arpad Szenes, the couple decided to go to Rio de Janeiro for the duration of the war, where they remained until 1947. During those years Vieira da Silva changed the nature of Brazilian art, in the sense that her approach to space, which had been greatly influenced by Joaquín Torres-Garcia (and, perhaps, by the staircase in the Rua da Emenda), would become a fundamental pole for the later development of Brazilian neo-concretism, which then became dominant in the following decade.

It was perhaps during this period that Vieira da Silva’s work defined its determining parameters for the future: the definition of a grid that constructs spaces, meshes of lines that propose vanishing points for the gaze, cages, bedrooms, chambers that propose the sinking of the gaze – which, indeed, had been foreseen in 1934, with a painting with an unequivocal name, Atelier, Lisbonne, dating from the same year.

Le Marais (1976) by Maria Helena Vieira da SilvaCulturgest - Fundação Caixa Geral de Depósitos

After this research Vieira da Silva became a constructor of spaces defined on the order of the optical plane; that is from the theatricalisation of perspective, which had been the centre of the painting since Masaccio until its staging as modernist reflexivity.

In any case, we Portuguese like to see her as a homebased painter, painted tiles and libraries, loneliness and ostracisms, exiles and self-absorptions. All this may be true, but it isn’t. It is much more: in the sharpness of the depth of the gaze it proposes, in the sinking within the painting and in the Joycean complexity of the crossed levels of narrative there is a universal quality that sets her as one of relevant artists of Europe (and Brazil) of the inter-war period – and of after World War II. Because very few people achieved what she did in transposing the issue of the representation of space to the three-dimensional, the shattered or multiplied, diving into the screen, before one’s eyes. She is frail and mysterious, down there in the Rua da Emenda, her gaze permanently flirting with the painting proposals of a good part of the last century: how can I believe in an image that is not verisimilar, but that stands as a dive into a different place?

Le Marais (1976) by Maria Helena Vieira da SilvaCulturgest - Fundação Caixa Geral de Depósitos

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Le Marais, 1976
Tempera on paper
65 x 39 cm
Inventory 228131
© DMF, Lisboa

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (Lisbon, 1908-Paris, 1992) studied Painting, Drawing and Sculpture at the Escola de Belas-Artes (Lisbon) and Anatomy at the Faculdade de Medicina de Lisboa. She moved to Paris in 1928, where she studied and worked with Léger and Waroquier, among others. It was in Paris that she met the Hungarian painter Arpad Szenes, whom she married in 1930, both giving their names to the Fundação Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva, with its centre in Lisbon, inaugurated in 1994. She lived in Brazil from 1940 to 1947. In 1956 she took French nationality, becoming the first woman to receive the Grand Prix National des Arts (1966), and later receiving the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d‘Honneur (1979) from the President of the French Republic. Her works were presented in Portugal for the first time in 1935, in an exhibition organized by António Pedro at the Galeria UP. She exhibited in many countries, with particular note being the following retrospectives: Hanover and Bremen (1958), Kassel (III Documenta, 1964), and in 1969-1970 in Paris, Rotterdam, Oslo,Basle and Lisbon at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian (FCG), where she also exhibited in 1977 and 1988. In this last year the exhibition at the FCG was held alongside that of the Centre nacional des arts plastiques, in Paris, and the homage paid to her by the Portuguese government with the awarding of the Great Cross of the Order of Freedom. She exhibited at the Casa de Serralves (Oporto) in 1989, the year when she was the guest of honour at the 20th São Paulo Biennial, where in 1961, she received the International Painting Prize (1961).

Vieira da Silva: catalogue raisonné, Genève, Skira, 1993.
Vieira da Silva nas colecções internacionais: em busca do essencial (cat.), Lisboa, Fundação Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva, 2004.

Credits: Story

© Delfim Sardo, 2009
Biography / Bibliography
© Mariana Viterbo Brandão, 2009
© David Alan Prescott, 2009

Story production (Collection Caixa Geral de Depósitos)
Lúcia Marques (coordinator)
Hugo Dinis (production assistant)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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