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White Gray Black

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (French, born Portugal. 1908–1992)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French painter of Portuguese birth. She arrived in Paris in 1928. She was impressed by the chequered tablecloths of the Bonnard paintings on display at the Galerie Petit, which influenced her later work; it was, however, sculpture that she first studied, with Emile-Antoine Bourdelle and then with Charles Despiau. In 1929 she began engraving in S. W. Hayter’s Atelier 17 and started to design carpets for Dolly Chareau’s Art Deco interiors. The influence of Joaquín Torres García, whose work was exhibited at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in 1932, was also crucial. She exhibited in 1933 and 1937 with the Galerie Jeanne Bucher, finally achieving a distinctive style in which the diamonds and squares of Portuguese azulejos combine with metaphors of chessboards and card games (e.g. Chess Game, 1943; Paris, Pompidou). Receding perspectives create an impression of vertiginous, imploding spaces that progressively absorb and annihilate the human element.

Before and during World War II Vieira da Silva’s subject-matter became increasingly political in works such as Flags (1939; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein-Westfalen), Disaster (War) (1941–2; Paris, priv. col., see Lassaigne and Weelen, p. 128) and Liberation of Paris (1945; Paris, priv. col., see Lassaigne and Weelen, p. 132). She had fled with her husband, the Hungarian painter Arpad Szènes, first to Portugal and then to Rio de Janeiro, where the couple mixed with the Brazilian intelligentsia. Returning to Paris, she exhibited in 1947, 1949 and 1951 at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher. Both her greyish palette and choice of motif, which deliberately echoed the French Impressionists, affiliated her work with the paysagisme abstrait of Jean Bazaine and Alfred Manessier. However, more dramatic structural motifs recalled the designs of Gustave Eiffel and of Piranesi. Vieira da Silva had first read Franz Kafka in 1936 and subjects such as Library (1949; Paris, Pompidou), used as a metaphor of alienation, were considered topically existential in the post-war circle around Jean-Paul Sartre. Parallels have been drawn between Sartre’s concept of nausée, the labyrinths and mazes of the writer Jorge Luis Borges and Vieira da Silva’s work.

Vieira da Silva was one of the most celebrated painters in Paris after World War II. In 1952 she painted a stage curtain for Arthur Adamov’s La Parodie, and she often worked with the poet René Char. She collaborated with sculptor Germaine Richier, painting shield-like backgrounds for Richier’s bronze figures. A retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in 1969–70, which toured to Rotterdam, Oslo, Basle and Lisbon, marked the height of her fame. From 1970 many of her works were realized as tapestries.

Sarah Wilson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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