Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
Biography of Portuguese-French Abstract Expressionist.

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Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92)


Regarded by critics as one of the most important members of the Art Informel movement - the European version of abstract expressionism - the Portuguese-born French artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was famous for her intricate brand of abstract art, as exemplified by canvases like Theatre de Gerard Philipe (1975, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar). A number of her paintings portray labyrinthine interiors, with complex lines of perspective. The recipient of numerous awards, she won the Grand Prize for Fine Arts at the Biennale in Sao Paulo (1961), and received the French Government's Grand Prix National des Arts, in 1966. Recognized as one of the leading 20th-century painters of the postwar era, she was named a member of the French Legion of Honour in 1979. Although best-known for her painting, she also excelled in the design of tapestry art and stained glass.

Born in Lisbon, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva studied drawing and sculpture at the city's Academy of Fine Art, before moving to Paris in 1928. Here, she studied sculpture under both Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) and Charles Despiau (1874-1946), engraving under S.W. Hayter (1901-88), and oil painting under Roger Bissière (1886-1964), Othon Friesz (1879–1949) and Fernand Leger (1881-1955). In 1930, she married the Hungarian painter Arpad Szenes (1900-84), who would become her chief mentor, and in 1933 enjoyed her first solo exhibition in Paris. In 1939, with war approaching, she fled from France to Portugal, and the following year left for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It was during these war-years in Brazil that her reputation as an artist grew. In 1947 she returned to Paris, where she became a French citizen in 1956.

Style of Art

As a painter, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was influenced in particular by the spatial organization of Paul Cezanne, and the muted colour palette of analytical Cubism, as well as the overall fashion for abstract expressionist painting, which dominated postwar art in both America and Europe.

Initially, during the mid-1930s she began to be noticed for her paintings made up of flecks of colour set against a neutral background - works that gave the 'impression' of space without the use of perspective. During the 40s, this early style gave way to her more famous spiky, linear compositions. After her return to France, she rapidly became one of the best-known exponents of Art Informel (best understood as "formless improvisation"), specializing in the style of Lyrical Abstraction, (also related to French Tachisme), alongside Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Sculze) (1913-51), Pierre Soulages (b.1919), Georges Mathieu (1921-2012), Nicolas de Stael (1914-55), Alfred Manessier (1911-93), Serge Poliakoff (1906-69), and Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002). Other painters who made contributions to the genre include the Europeans Karel Appel (1921-2006) and Asger Jorn (1914-73), the American calligraphic painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976), the Tachist Sam Francis (1923-94), and the St Ives artist Patrick Heron (1920-99).

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva's notable 20th century paintings include: Dance (1938, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Game of Chess (1943, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris); The Corridor (1950, Tate Collection, London); Serigraphic #1 (1959, San Francisco Fine Arts Museum) and Theatre de Gerard Philipe (1975, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar).


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