Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
Le cataclysme, 1954
Galerie Pierre, Paris.
Private Collection, Portugal, acquired from the above by 1964; and by descent to the present owner in 2006.
R. de Solier, Vieira da Silva, Paris, 1956, p. 35 (illus. in colour).
J.A. França, Vieira da Silva, Lisbon, 1958, no. 13.
R. Berger, ‘Vieira da Silva et l’intuition de l’espace’, in XXe Siècle, Paris, no. 18, Feb. 1962, pp. 29, 31-32 (illus. p. 29).
J. Guichard-Meili, ‘Vieira da Silva. Le un et l’infini’, Nouvelle Revue Française, Paris, 1 Dec. 1969, p. 911.
P. Boyer, ‘Pour un espace différent’, in Esprit, Paris, Jan. 1970, p. 217, no. 388.
D. Vallier, La peinture de Vieira da Silva: Chemins d’approche, Paris, 1971, p. 131 (illus.)
J. Lassaigne & G. Weelen, Vieira da Silva, Barcelona, 1978, p. 199, no. 228.
H. Haddad, ‘La perspective du vertige’, in L’Education, Paris, 8 Oct. 1981, p. 26.
M. Butor, Vieira da Silva – Peintures, Paris, 1983, p. 49 (illus.)
C. Roy, Vieira da Silva, Barcelona, 1988, p. 17.
F. Hernándes-Cava, ‘Vieira da Silva, Fundación Juan March’, in Complice, Madrid, June 1991, no. 95 (illus.)
Vieira da Silva, exh. cat., Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1991, p. 79, n.n.
G. Weelen et al., Vieira da Silva: Catalogue Raisonné, Geneva, 1994, vol. I, p. 241, no. 1220 (illus.); vol. II, p. 279 (illus. in colour).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Vieira da Silva – Germaine Richier, 4 Feb. – 7 March 1955, no. 9 (titled ‘Snelheid’ [‘Speed’]).
Minneapolis, The Walker Art Center, Schools of Paris 1959: The Internationals, 5 April – 17 May 1959, no. 71.
Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Vieira da Silva, peintures 1935 – 1969, 24 Sept. – 10 Nov. 1969, no. 26.
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans-van-Beuningen, Vieira da Silva, Schilderijen 1936 – 1969, 23 Dec. 1969 – 1 Feb. 1970, no. 20; this exhibition later travelled to Oslo, Kunstnernes Hus, 24 Feb. – 22 March 1970.
Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Vieira da Silva, June – July 1970, no. 94.
São Paulo, Museu de Arte, Vieira da Silva nas Colecções portuguesas, April 1987, no. 18.
Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Vieira da Silva, 13 June – 14 Aug. 1988, n.n.; this exhibition later travelled to Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 22 Sept. – 21 Nov. 1988.
Madrid, Fundación Juan March, Vieira da Silva, 17 May – 7 July 1991, no. 22.
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Vieira da Silva, 27 Sept. – 8 Dec. 1991, n.n.
‘I look at the street and at people walking on foot with different appearances advancing at different speeds. I think of the invisible threads which manipulate them…I try and see the machinery which organises them. I think this is in a way what I attempt to paint.’ (Maria Helena Vieira da Silva).
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva is widely considered Portugal’s greatest 20th century artist, despite adopting French citizenship. Her paintings, which draw from Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and other genres, reflect on modernity, disaster and reconstruction in the turbulent Pre- and Post-War years. Vieira da Silva moved from Lisbon to Paris aged just nineteen, having already travelled widely with her diplomat father and encountered avant-garde art in the form of the Italian Futurists and the Ballets Russes. She enrolled as a pupil of the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la grande chaumière and eagerly absorbed the inspiration of the modernists she encountered there.
‘Perspective is a way of playing with space. I take a lot of pleasure in looking at space and its rhythms. The architecture of a city has connections to music. There are long notes, and short notes. There are small windows, and large windows.’
By 1930 Vieira da Silva had begun exhibiting works that meld elements of Futurism, Constructivism and Cubism, referencing contemporaries ranging from Bonnard to Picasso and Léger, and studying for a time with the latter. Her ongoing fascination with perspective was sparked by an encounter with the paintings of Cézanne, with their sparkling facets and planes of colour, and interest in underlying structure. From Cubism she borrowed an experimental interest in multiple vanishing points, which encourage the viewer’s eye on a constantly shifting journey around the canvas.
The grid-like structures that reference the industrial world are a nod to Constructivism, while the dizzying sense of motion and speed are qualities shared with the work of the Futurists. Her paintings explore the meaning of modernity, a force that is simultaneously creative and destructive.
At the outbreak of World War II, Vieira da Silva and her husband, the Hungarian artist Arpad Szenès, fled to Portugal and then on to Rio de Janeiro. There she came into contact with Spanish-Uruguayan artist and author Joaquín Torres-García, whose integration of classical, Latin-American and abstract elements resonated strongly. Vieira da Silva began to integrate more geometric forms into her own compositions, combining them into dense and complex arrangements.
‘Le cataclysme, of 1954, recovers/finds…rhythms, but they are associated with the loss of perspective (or allusion to perspective); they provoke a general ‘bursting’ of the picture: rarely Discontinuity acts with such freedom. Without a doubt the title of the work is symptomatic: a catastrophe occurred to the paint/painting, overturning it to its foundations. The movement is of such violence that (exceptionally) no construction can resist it (G. Weelen et al., op. cit., vol. II, p. 279).
Vieira da Silva and Szenès returned to Paris in 1947, and her paintings of the 1950s at the height of her career, the period to which Le cataclysme dates, address themes of renovation and reconstruction in Post-War Paris. Her canvases, whether monochrome or colourful, are typically heavily worked with an intricate lattice of intersecting lines and overlapping mosaic planes that recall both Cézanne’s work and the colourful tiles of Lisbon. Le cataclysme features electric blue, violet, mustard yellow, orange and citrus green hues, interspersed with passages of paler, chalky tones, and shades of grey.
Le cataclysme has descended in the family of a private Portuguese collector who acquired it from the Galerie Pierre in Paris. Many of the pieces remain in the family collection today, and those that have been sold have set world auction records. Le cataclysme was included in several landmark exhibitions, including the 1970 retrospective of Vieira da Silva’s work at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.
‘A painting should have a heart, a nervous system, bones and circulation. It should appear to be a person in its movements.’ (Maria Helena Vieira da Silva)
Vieira da Silva was made a French citizen in 1956, the year she was awarded the Grand Prix des Beaux Arts at the São Paulo Biennale, and she began earning considerable international attention. Her work found admiration among fellow artists: for instance, there are parallels to be drawn between Vieira da Silva’s urban abstractions and Gerhard Richter’s Stadtbilde cityscapes, painted between 1968 and 1970.
When Vieira da Silva was awarded France’s Grand Prix National des Arts in 1966 she became the first woman so honoured, and she was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1979. With the opening of major retrospective shows this year, Vieira da Silva is being returned to the public eye and given the recognition her dynamic and vehemently modern paintings deserve.