Born into an affluent milieu in Lisbon, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was confronted by tragedy at a very early age with the death of her father, an event that instilled in her an acute awareness of the ephemeral nature of life. An only child who was educated by a private tutor, she escaped from reality through books and music, invented her own world of sensations and reveries, and recognised early on a desire to be a painter.
“Sometimes I was completely alone and sometimes I was sad, even very sad. I took refuge in the world of colours and the world of sounds…. I believe that, for me, all that got mixed up into a single thing”.
“With what I knew of life and with what I knew from books, I still made things up. And I tried to draw them (…). Today in me there is this thing that continues to exist in me (…)”.
Bored by traditional Portuguese art and driven by an insatiable curiosity, she decided to go to Paris, the capital of the cultural avant-garde, in 1928, a period during which she also travelled in Italy. She spent several years exploring artistically, frequenting different academies of sculpture and painting – where she met her future husband Árpád Szenes, from whom she would never part – but above all visiting galleries, museums and exhibitions. In these she became aware of the most important references for her future, starting with the fundamental example offered by Cézanne, who said: “Nature is on the inside”. She was interested by the small squares on Bonnard’s tablecloths and the ornamental tiling in the paintings of the Siennese Primitives, an echo perhaps of the azulejos of her childhood. The abstractionism of the Uruguayan Torres García (1874–1949), in which he painted grids of signs or objects taken from reality, led her to decide the direction she wished to take: “A tower – white, black, grey, cobalt blue, earth red, ladders, clocks, a severe and cheerful world, a world I came into in 1929 and where I still live”, she would say in 1975.
After having been “excessively concerned by each muscle, each bone” with an eye to “show and say everything” during her period of apprenticeship in Lisbon, in an attempt to embrace multiple visions, Vieira da Silva embarked upon a long period of development in which real objects were progressively transformed into strictly pictorial plastic schemas, in which greater importance was given to the treatment of space, leading to all sorts of future discoveries.
“I like everything but I just love perspective. Not scientific perspective but the kind experienced, composed of rhythm and music…. The capacity to suggest an immense space in a tiny scrap of canvas!”
Taking her model as her starting point, Vieira da Silva succeeded in giving her work an architecture based primarily on Renaissance perspective, in which a vanishing point creates the illusion of depth, but this monocular vision did not content her and she quickly went further by superposing planes, creating additional vanishing points, or by the parallel return to the plane through the distortion of lines or dynamic use of colour.
This gives a spatial nature to the forms though without forsaking the two-dimensional nature of the support. Biomorphic silhouettes occasionally develop into what Diane Daval Béran calls spatial ribbing, whose interlacing herald the notion of the labyrinth that would become dear to Vieira da Silva, but new progress in her art was made with checked patterns, with the systematic use of small four-sided figures in her treatment of games of cards (was this a memory of the painting by Cézanne that had so influenced her?) and chess. The results were sometimes close to surrealism when the human figure seems to act on the movement of an abstract structure. Above all, the pictorial space, as defined by lines and the plane, becomes the true subject of the work, while use of colour introduces the notion of time and instability by creating undulating movements.
“The reason I used these small four-sided figures and precarious perspective (that is how I describe it) is because I could see no interest in following Mondrian or anyone else. I wanted something else. I didn’t want people to be passive. I wanted them to come and enter into the game, I wanted them to wander there, climb and descend…”.
The rise of Hitler and the accompanying danger induced Vieira da Silva to leave for Portugal but the occupation of France made her fear an alliance with Salazar. In June 1940 she left for Brazil with her husband, from where she was not to return until 1948. Suffering from the loss of her roots and disturbed by the horrors of the war, she tried to reassure herself by painting subjects taken from the real world around her, but from time to time she returned to the spatial research she had already undertaken, entering even further into the osmosis existing between the structural reality and fictional space of the composition, passing uninterruptedly from the plane to depth in a perfect visual continuity.
But the fears awoken in her by the war inspired her to paint a number of paintings of the universal theme of chaos and pointless violence, powerfully symbolized by the total harmony between her treatment of the figurative and the architecture of the composition. In these works she took figuration to the furthest point it could go and that she could subsequently only turn away from.
On her return to Paris, Vieira da Silva returned to her earlier research, and during the 1950s succeeded in finding a personal vocabulary that allowed her to achieve the high point of her art.
“It has been like that in me since I was twenty years old”.
From this period until the end of her life she dedicated herself to her work like a nun in her cell, avoiding social life as much as possible and remaining apart from the topics and arguments that coursed through the art world of the post-war period.
Although she had found her own solution to the Figuration-Abstraction debate, following the tragedies of the years 1939–45 and the shaking of the foundations of civilization, her art embraced a new direction, as did that of other artists of very different practice. She no longer attempted to create a utopia through mental logic and thus achieve pure plasticism, as had occurred in the abstractionism of the 1920s, she instead tried to express a new way of being in the world in a permanent quest for self-knowledge, crystallized through the way she looked at the world founded on her experience and personal sensibility. During this same period, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty elucidated this proclivity in his theory of the phenomenology of perception: “Neither for the artist, nor the public, can the meaning of a work be formulated other than through the work itself”, thus introducing a relationship of a completely new unity between the subject and the object. As had occurred in the sciences after their foundations were undermined by the theories of Albert Einstein, the artists of the 1950s were induced to reconsider totally the concepts of space, time, matter, life and chance.
In spite of her tendency not to speak out publicly, nor to give her opinions, in interviews published later Vieira da Silva explained how her works were intimately linked with her character.
“I create my universe spontaneously using spontaneous forms. The great theories of art are all very wonderful but…. I follow them, yes, but in the end I have no wish to put them into practice. What I want to put into practice is myself. Myself, through the self I experience in painting. Everything is open and yet each time it is different: that is my starting point. I say a thing. It could be something different. And that too could be something different.”
“For me rigour is not enough. I have to be able to play truant”.
“I studied the classics very seriously (…). I never had a goal (…) it wasn’t that I should ‘paint life’ (…), rather what I see around me (…). In the end, when I paint, I think of nothing else but painting well. How can I explain it? What I paint is what is around me. (…) To many painters, the visual world counts for nothing. For me it is very important, it is my vocabulary”.
Speaking of people walking in the street: “I think of invisible strings they are being pulled by. They are not allowed to stop. I don’t see them, I try to see the gears that move them. I have the feeling that that is what I try to paint”.
“My secret is watching nature. I spend my time and life looking”.
“Ideas come completely naturally because I have looked. It’s a chain”.
In short, Vieira da Silva attempted to decant reality through the filter of her being fully independent of all surrounding influences. To her painting was the means to explore the world of her sensations in order to reveal them to herself, and to observe the visible world to understand its hidden mechanisms.
Her desire to understand universality, which prompted her to combine incongruous spatial constructions in a new manner, often induced her to use large formats and to abolish the use of a frame, creating “all over” paintings, like the American expressionists.
“I want to paint what is not there as though it really were there”.
This was once again a reflection of her personality assailed by contradictions and uncertainty:
“Every day I become even more amazed at being, at rolling through space on a ball. We hear about reality. I am amazed by everything, I paint my astonishment, which is a combination of wonder, terror and laughter. I don’t want anything to be excluded from my astonishment. I would like to make paintings with everything included, with all the contradictions. With the unexpected”.
“A beautiful artwork allows us to understand or see that its creator knows all about sorrow, ugliness, the tragedy of life. We are made aware of their extent and presence but without emphasis being placed on these characteristics”.
“I have very contradictory feelings. I enjoy everything to such an extent – sounds, colours, beauty – that I am really lucky. I don’t deserve all that. I am cyclothymic…. However, another part of me suffers from the fact of being alive and is detached from life”.
“I have accustomed myself to believing that there is nothing stable, that everything is in constant flux”.
“I am uncertainty itself (…). To me everything is relative (…). The world changes, eyes change. People have eyes (…). Everything is so subtle! Anything that is real and stable is false”.
“This uncertainty, this dreadful labyrinth, can be seen in my paintings. This labyrinth is my destiny, but perhaps in the middle of this labyrinth there is a little certainty to be found”.
Indeed, labyrinth-like constructions of an interior began to appear in Vieira da Silva’s work in 1947.
Vieira da Silva engaged with her canvases without using a single pre-established method: she refused to paint in a purely gestural manner though she was very close to this approach at the start of the 1960s, when she acknowledged that a painting was able to create itself independent of her thought. However, it was her custom to come back to her works after some weeks, months or even years.
“I never know what I want to do. It is the painting that tells me. Afterwards. Do you understand? Like St Thomas. (…) Perhaps that’s why I don’t believe in my painting until it is finished”.
“Each day the way I work and the way I embark on my work is different (…). Paintings are utterly mysterious and the way in which they are executed”.
“I believe that I have a sort of plastic intelligence that is perhaps more powerful than other of my characteristics”.
“When an oil or gouache painting is begun, there are two paintings that are present together: the one on the easel and the one in the artist’s head. Sometimes the one in my head never matched the other, but I liked this other one and allowed it to create itself as it appeared on the easel. But it also happened that I was not satisfied and would continue to chase after the one I had imagined”.
“I think that by adding one small touch after another, working laboriously like a bee, a painting paints itself. A painting must have a heart, a nervous system, bones and blood. It resembles a person in its movements (…). Whoever is looking at it finds himself before a living being who will keep him company, tell him stories, give him certainties. Because a painting is not a form of escape, it is a friend who speaks to you, who discovers the hidden depths in you and around you”.
Despite her “multiple and contradictory” directions and generators of tension, Vieira da Silva’s painting was founded on a subtle, silent harmony whose ambiguity is filled with imagination and solemnity.
“My imagination is not wholly imagination. It’s a construction, a way of constructing myself”.
Although her mature work was painted over a long period, between the 1950s and 1992, it is not possible to classify periods for her works in terms of themes or styles as it is based on a new temporality anchored in fundamental indecision that blends memory and the present, returns to the past and new directions.
“The starting point of a new painting is often an old one I wanted to redo”.
“I find that it is beneficial to impose things on myself but without expectation of an immediate result. Only to open a promising future”.
Thus, for Vieira da Silva the post-war period was more a question of discovering her deep creative logic; painting in series gave way to creating variations on plastic elements, producing endless alternatives through continual metamorphosis.
A grid, for example, might lose its sense of solidity as a result of a lighting effect rendered by imperceptible changes in tone (rather than the use of pure colour during her period of development), or by being covered with very fine hatching using the technique called “traitillism” invented in the 1970s, which gives rise to form in a use of space in which the infinitely great is joined with the infinitely small (an echo of the idea put forward by Vieira da Silva’s friend, the poet René Char). The result was the discovery of a new materiality that Diane Daval Béran has termed transparent density.
Generally, the notions of density and transparency are more appropriate to describe Vieira da Silva’s painting, who often intimately associated lines and chromatism. The use of colour is a dominant and constant feature in her work and her post-war palette turned away from bright colours in favour of harmonies of blues and earth colours, or greys and ochres, which harmonized with the painter’s character: the colours themselves were rarely united but she worked subtly on their values, which, by modelling the depth and movement of the light, became the major elements of the construction.
Whereas Vieira da Silva created many black paintings during the ’50s, white and its derivatives won her affections in the ’60s and again in the ’80s, something that did not occur by chance.
Most of the titles she gave to her works were decided post hoc and often cited the city, its buildings or their architectural elements, revealing that Vieira da Silva did not want to break entirely with the visible world. This is what she had to say about it:
“In my most recent works (they were in fact among her first) forms can be seen that others consider similar to buildings but which for me are interiors with doors and windows. They are not exactly rooms but entrances. To my mind, a door is a very important feature. For a long time I have felt I have been confronted by a closed door, and important things that I can neither know nor see are taking place on the other side. It is death that will open the door for me. There are so many things about which we have no explanation! Now, I would very much like to know what those things are, not because I am scared or think it would bring me happiness, just to satisfy my curiosity. I would like to understand and I have the impression that the explanation will come with my death; it is that which holds the key. (…) Everything that scientists can explain does not explain ‘that’.
“What I would like is to discover what happens on the other side through painting”.
And her production is indeed haunted by open spaces in the middle of a labyrinth in which an opening extends towards infinity.
The frequency of her white paintings coincides with those moments when Vieira da Silva was confronted by death: that of her mother in 1964, and of Árpád in 1985 after a long illness, followed by her discovery of the cancer that would take her own life in 1992. Their titles – The Ways of Peace (1985), Silence (1984-1988), Destination (1986), Currents of Eternity (1990), Towards the Light (1991) – leave no doubt: they are the material form of the mystical, contemplative and always latent desire of Vieira da Silva the non-believer.
Árpád commented, “In her happiest moments, Vieira da Silva wonders what the most terrible thing that could happen might be: (…) But perhaps she needs this form of worry, of this means of experiencing remorse”. Thus it seems that having worked on her painting all her life in order to “construct herself”, Vieira da Silva finished her life by gaining serenity. In her white paintings during her last decade, in which all the plastic elements dissolve into light and are transformed into the opening that leads towards the mystery, her painting borders on the immaterial: anti-matter liberating primordial energy blended with love.
“I feel detached from my body (…). Perhaps there is something that the wise men have not yet discovered, which cannot decompose. What can we call this thing? Energy? (…) Even though we are disposed of after death, the waves continue to radiate (…).”
“The inordinate ambition to give to the world something that would be (excuse me) like a love philtre”.
Vieira da Silva, catalogue de l’exposition de la Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian à Lisbonne et du Grand Palais à Paris, 1988
Hommage à Vieira da Silva, catalogue de l’exposition de la galerie Pauli de Lausanne, 1992
Vieira da Silva, Collections du Centre Georges Pompidou et du Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, catalogue de l’exposition du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, 1994
Guy Weelen et Jean-François Jaeger (avec la collaboration de Jean-Louis Daval et de Diane Daval Béran), Vieira da Silva, catalogue raisonné en 2 volumes (monographie et catalogue), 1994