On View: Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

The Embassy of Portugal in Washington, D.C., invited NMWA to participate in the “Month of Portugal in the United States” for June 2018. This initiative celebrates ongoing cultural, educational, and research exchanges between the two countries. NMWA is partnering with Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon to present a group of works by Portuguese-born artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908–1992).

If you are able to visit NMWA’s collection galleries this June, you will enjoy seeing three works on loan from the celebrated Gulbenkian Museum—two oil paintings and a tapestry—alongside two works by Vieira da Silva from NMWA’s collection.

Installation view of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s works at NMWA

Vieira da Silva helped to shape the field of expressive abstraction after World War II in Paris, where she lived and worked for nearly 60 years. She instinctually built line, shape, and color into atmospheric, web-like compositions. In L’aire du vent (1966), she interlaced heavy, roughly drawn lines and restricted her palette to grays and blues, evoking a sense of force that contrasts with the ethereal quality of her canvas titled L’oranger (1954), the artist’s interpretation of an orange orchard on a sunny day.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, L’aire du vent, 1966; Oil on canvas, 39 x 52 x 1 1/2 in.; Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; Installation Photo: NMWA

Vieira da Silva designed the wool tapestry titled Janela (Window) on the occasion of the opening of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s headquarters in Lisbon in 1969. This finely woven textile was created at Portugal’s esteemed Manufactura de Tapeçarias de Portalegre. Although she was best known as a painter, Vieira da Silva’s career also included public art commissions and works in tapestry, scenography, stained glass, and illustration.

Visitors may also view works by the artist from NMWA’s collection—The Town, a dazzling oil from 1955, and an untitled gouache (1962) in shades of red and yellow, an unusually bright palette for the artist. A gift to NMWA from Dian Woodner, the gouache will be exhibited at the museum for the first time in this installation of Vieira da Silva’s art.

Visit the museum during June 2018 to see Vieira da Silva’s works and celebrate “Month of Portugal in the United States.”

Adapted from text by Kathryn Wat, chief curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

“When I paint a landscape or a seascape, I’m not very sure it’s a landscape or a seascape. It’s a thought form rather than a realistic form.” Thus did Maria Helena Vieira da Silva explains her approach to her art, which is almost always completely abstract.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, The Town, 1955; Oil on canvas; 39 1/2 x 31 3/4 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Although she was generally regarded as Portugal’s greatest contemporary artists, Vieira da Silva spent six decades of her life in France, where she became a naturalized citizen in 1956. Born in Lisbon in 1908, Vieira da Silva began seriously studying drawing and painting at that city’s Academia de Belas-Artes when she was only eleven. At sixteen, she expanded her artistic interests to include the study of sculpture. Three years later she moved to Paris. There Vieira da Silve studied painting with Fernand Léger, sculpture with Antoine Bourdelle, and engraving with Stanley William Hayter, all acknowledged masters in their fields. She also created textile designs.

In 1930 Vieira da Silva was exhibiting her painting in the French capital; that same year she married the Hungarian painter Arpad Szenes. Aside from a brief sojourn back to Lisbon and a period spend in Brazil during World War II, Vieira da Silva continued to reside in Paris for the rest of her life. By the late 1950s, Vieira da Silva had become internationally known for her dense and complex compositions, influenced by the art of Pail Cézanne and the fragmented forms, spatial ambiguities, and restricted palette of cubism. She exhibited her work widely, winning a prize for painting at the Biennial in São Paulo in 1961. Vieira da Silva was the first woman to receive the French government’s Grand Prix National des Arts in 1966; she also won man other awards and honors, including being named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1979.

Virtually the entire surface of Vieira da Silva’s canvas The Town is covered with tiny, repeated squared and cubes or vertical lines. While these forms clearly suggest the rectilinear and vertically oriented architecture of the modern city, they also create a dynamic and richly textured, abstract surface that is visually exciting in its own right.

The cool colors (muted brown, gray, blue, beige, yellow, and white) are set off by a few touches of brilliant orange. Meanwhile, the overall design is anchored in place by a grid of black lines. On of the most interesting aspects of Vieira da Silva’s painting is the way in which its constituent parts, especially the colored squares and cubes, seem to shift back and form within the implied pictorial space. They sometimes seem to shimmer, calling to mind the blinking lights and fast-moving traffic of an urban environment.

Vieira da Silva started each work without any image in mind. Rather, she simply began laying down a few lines, which in turn suggested what she should do next. Although she worked intensely, almost obsessively, Vieira da Silva seldom completed more than ten paintings per year, presumably because of the slow, careful way in which she wove together myriad, carefully balanced colors and forms.

–Adapted from Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts by Nancy G. Heller (Rizzoli, 2000)