Thursday, 12 June 2014

Vieira da Silva; the 31 Women number Twenty-Eight, her birthday is 13 June.

born 13 June 1908 in Lisbon, Portugal, died 6 March 1992                                  

Vieira da Silva working on stained glass, C1966
Portuguese/French painter, abstraction, mosaic, murals, tapestry, stained glass 

Maria Elena Vieira da Silva is an unfamiliar name to many in the English speaking art world but this lack of recognition is completely undeserved. She was Portuguese by birth, though her career is mainly identified with the School of Paris and her work is highly regarded throughout Europe, especially in France and Portugal and also in Brazil. She has had a large number of exhibitions both in Europe and Latin America. In a sixty year painting career she exhibited almost every year, beginning in a joint exhibition with Hungarian painter Arpad Szenes, in Lisbon in 1929 and with her first solo exhibition in Paris in 1933.
Szenes became her husband in 1930 and was possibly the only example in the twentieth century of a male artist suborning his own talent in favour of his wife’s. Although they exhibited together, he promoted her work ahead of his own, effectively acting as her manager. She was naturally shy and reclusive and he protected her from day to day worries, whilst introducing her work to the outside world. Most importantly, he was able to dispel much of the self doubt that often struck her down; she was constantly concerned that her increasingly abstract interpretations of time and place were becoming de-humanised and hence devalued, though their creation actually involved a huge emotional commitment from the artist.

Vieira da Silva’s father was a Portuguese diplomat. The family were in Switzerland when her father died of tuberculosis. His only child, three year old Vieira, saw him die and this tragic experience shaped her lonely childhood. Her mother returned to her own parents’ home in Lisbon and Vieira grew to adulthood there. She had home tutors and was never sent to school, never played with other children, living in a world of educated adults who treated her as another adult. She read, played the piano, learned three languages, drew and painted. At age eleven she began taking classes at the Lisbon Academia de Belas-Artes.
Early in 1928, aged nineteen, she moved with her mother to Paris, intending to become an artist. Exploring the Louvre, she found many of the old masters distant, but she felt an immediate affinity with the work of Cezanne and Bonnard and also, after an initial shock, with Picasso. Da Silva’s best work shows her artistic journey as a complex and sophisticated exploration of space and place, which began in her own mind with these artists. Much of her earliest work has not survived, but she appears to have initially used an expressionist style, with simplified representations of objects and places sometimes inhabited by tiny figures. Some of these early images express her loneliness and isolation, others appear closer to the freedom and youthful confidence of early paintings by Meret Oppenheim.

Vieira da Silva’s fascination with the relationships between what influences where things are in the world and what happens in between them was boosted when, on a study trip around Italy, she saw the Lorenzetti frescoes in Siena. Painted between 1338-40, they were the first major non-religious paintings seen in Europe, depicting not only the physical locations of elements of the Siennese state but also the inhabitants in their social and political positions, giving to the idea of space and place elements which transcend the merely geometric or geographical. This had a profound effect on the young Vieira’s ideas of what could be achieved with painting.
In Paris, the years between 1928 and 1932 were filled with classes and study in several artists’ studios. Othon Friesz, a former Fauvist painter who adopted a more studied method of exploring space and form in the manner Cezanne, may have been a significant influence, also Roget Bissiere,  whose style and fondness for grid structures were influential. She also learned printmaking at the influential atelier of S.W. Hayter, who helped many young artists to expand their vision and variety of artistic media.
Throughout their life together Vieira and Arpad adopted a fairly strict regime of work and seldom socialised. Whilst they do not appear to have worked collaboratively like other artistic partners Sophie Taeuber and Jean Arp, they did exhibit together. After da Silva’s first exhibition at Galerie Jeanne-Bucher in 1933, they became close friends with the owner and exhibited there over many years. They were already well recognised members of the European avant-garde when WWII broke out in 1939. As a stateless Jew, Arpad could not stay in France, the couple fled to Portugal.
To her profound dismay, da Silva’s claim to citizenship in the country of her birth was refused by the right-wing, militarist Salazar government. While other fleeing artists went to New York or Mexico, Vieira sailed with her husband to exile in Brazil.  They were welcomed in Rio de Janeiro by the artistic community and had several exhibitions, but their modern work was not understood widely and they both had to resort to teaching to earn a living. Once they returned to France in 1948, Vieira da Silva returned to her career as artist and designer.
Vieira da Silva's solo show venues included Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, Sao Paulo, Tunis, Venice, Basle, Geneva, Hanover, Jerusalem, Rome and Barcelona. In the fifties and sixties her work was seen more widely in the USA, beginning in Pittsburgh in 1952 and New York in 1954, but the constancy of her artistic vision and style did not move with the ebb and flow of fashions in American contemporary art and her last exhibition in the United states was in 1972. Work of hers remains in many important American museums and collections. She had one solo exhibition in London in 1957 and France, her adopted home, always appreciated her. In 1966 she became the first woman to receive the French Grand Prix National des Arts and in 1979 she became Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

She created a number of large tapestries and murals including a mosaic for the Lisbon Metro but her most significant commission came after, in 1963, she began to work in stained glass.  As a consequence in 1966 she was asked to create eight stained glass windows for the church of Saint-Jaques in Rheims, a project which was later increased to eleven windows and lasted ten years. Despite this she was not religious, saying "... All I have is uncertainty."

She exhibited her work throughout Europe, where her intense, intricate abstractions never seemed to go out of fashion. She continued to paint even after the death of her beloved Arpad in 1985, though there were no more major commissions. An indication of da Silva’s recognition as an artist of stature is in the large number of monographs published in her lifetime, the first in 1949 by Pierre Descargues, and she is one of a very few women artists to be included in the popular book series by Taschen.

Vieira da Silva herself died in 1992. Today she is under-appreciated and this brief biography can do no justice to her remarkable paintings.  

Sources include :-
Gisela Rosenthal,  Vieira da Silva  Taschen 2005

Jaques Lassaigne & Guy Weelan, Vieira da Silva Rizzoli, New York 1978/9

Fundacao Arpad Sznes - Vieira da Silva, Lisbon -


Comments, corrections and further information about Vieira da Silva are very welcome. 
You can read about the remaining members of the 31 Women as their birthdays arrive, only three to go now, although there may be a thirty-second woman still to come - watch this space..! Earlier artists will remain on the blog.


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