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Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Abstract painting of colorful geometric forms arranged to form a large shape on a gray background.
© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Also known as
Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, Maria H. Vieira da Silva, Maria Helena Vieira Silva, Mrs. Arpad Szenes, Marie-Hélène Vieira da Silva, Vieira Da Silva, Vieira da Silva, Marie Helena Vieira da Silva Szenes
Date of birth
Date of death

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva left her hometown Lisbon in 1928 with the intention to study sculpture at the Académie La Grande Chaumière in Paris. Amid the vibrant Parisian art scene, her interests extended to painting, which she studied with Fernand Léger, among others. In the mid 1930s, Vieira da Silva began working in increasingly abstract modes. Yet abstraction was never Vieira da Silva’s only concern—even earlier in her life, her excitement with the speed of modern life led to an interest in the dynamic pictorial strategies of the Italian Futurists, but she also reacted strongly against those artists’ alliance with Fascism.

In 1936, as right-wing extremists were gaining influence in Europe, Vieira da Silva actively debated the merits of abstraction and realism with fellow politically aware artists, particularly the artist’s group Amis de Monde, which met in a Paris café. It was in this context that she painted Composition (1936–1937), a significant early abstraction that demonstrates her diverse visual interests. The colorful planes of the painting’s central mass suggest checkered textiles as much as they do the artist’s favored azulejos, decorative ceramic tiles common in Lisbon, which Vieira da Silva collected from periods as early as the fifteenth century. This painting anticipates later shifts in her work towards abstracted urban space and the stark verticals of modern architecture and engineering, such as in Rotterdam (1956).

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Vieira da Silva and her husband, the Hungarian-Jewish artist Árpád Szenes, left Paris to move back to her native Lisbon. Because of her marriage to Szenes, the Portuguese government revoked Vieira da Silva’s citizenship, and the couple moved once again, traveling on documents issued by the League of Nations to Rio de Janeiro. They would stay there seven years, becoming friends with important Brazilian modernist poets such as Murilo Mendes, receiving federal commissions, and exhibiting at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes.

After Vieira da Silva returned to Paris in 1947, the French government purchased important works from this period such as La partie d’échecs (The Chess Game), 1943, now in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, which demonstrate her ongoing negotiations of abstraction and figuration that would continue through the rest of her life. As she saw it, abstraction, politics, and the everyday were all part of the experience of life: “Everything amazes me. I paint my amazement, which at the same time is delight, fear and laughter. I do not want to exclude anything from this amazement. I want to paint pictures with many things, with all the contradictions …”

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