Born in Lisbon, the painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) moved to Paris in 1928 to become one of the major figures of post-war art, one of the few female artists to gain international fame in the 1950s. In her painting, described as “abstract landscape art,” Vieira focused her attention and her practice on the question of perspective. Her central subject was the city.
Vieira observed and contemplated the world, deconstructing it and recreating it in the intimate and silent world of her studio. She evoked the memories of streets, enclosed interiors, performance venues, libraries – so many recalled sensations that became lines and planes, fragmented by a process of abstraction of space. Thus a poetic world was born on her canvases, made of complex compositions which obeyed her personal laws of perspective, playing on the viewer’s gaze and composing mental landscapes which blur the boundaries between abstraction and figuration.
With infinite meticulousness, the painter built her paintings with a rare attention to detail, based on a principle of composition adopted in the mid-1930s: a network of interwoven lines, checkerboards and wefts where colour plays an essential role, creating an ambiguous spatiality. The moving eye travels through the work, gets lost in it, as in a labyrinth, and seeks to identify landscapes by mobilising its own memory. These evocative surfaces are offered to viewers as psychological spaces, possibilities of reflection revealing all the complexity of the world.
A number of influences enriched Vieira’s practice and allowed her to develop her unique way of capturing reality in a fragmented way: the avant-garde, discovered in Paris; Cubism, geometric abstraction and Futurism; the painters of the Renaissance, discovered during a trip to Siena in the summer of 1928, which fascinated her for their sense of perspective; Paul Cézanne, for his fragmented construction of space; Pierre Bonnard, for his perspectives; and finally, from her childhood, azulejos, the multicoloured ceramic tiles typical of Portuguese architecture which undoubtedly led her very early on towards the fragmentation of space and networked construction.
Audiences discovered her paintings from her first solo exhibition at the Jeanne Bucher gallery in 1933. From then on, the pace of exhibitions around the world was sustained and her works soon became included in the most prestigious collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London, the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. In 1990, the Árpád Szenes – Vieira da Silva Foundation was created in Lisbon to promote the artist’s work.
Vieira received many awards, including the Grand Prix de Peinture at the São Paulo Biennale in 1961 and the Grand Prix national des Arts from the French government in 1966, which she was the first woman to receive. She was also awarded high honours. She was made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1962 and Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1979. The City of Lisbon awarded her the City Medal in 1988, and the Royal Academy of London named her an Honorary Member in the same year.