CR Muse: The Fragments of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was one of the most notable creative minds of the 20th century. She was also a bit of a mystery. Considered Portugal’s „greatest contemporary artist,“ Vieira da Silva was deeply crucial to French culture—she was the first woman to win the country’s Grand Prix National des Arts in 1966, and in 1979, she became a recipient of the Légion d’Honneur. Despite this, details about her life remain scarce, while information about her male contemporaries seems endless. So, who was she?

Vieira da Silva was born in Lisbon in 1908. The daughter of a diplomat and granddaughter of a newspaper director, she was exposed to travel and culture at an early age. At 11, she began studying painting and drawing at the Academia das Belas Artes. Though she briefly dabbled in sculpture, Vieira da Silva ultimately settled on painting as her preferred form of expression.

The word “intricate” is often used when describing Vieira da Silva’s work—and for good reason. Her paintings are made up of an array of fine lines and boxes of color, and though they seem nebulous, there is clear control in their organization, especially in regards to perspective. For example, „The Corridor,“ 1950, currently in possession by the Tate, features squares, diamonds, and lines all pulled together toward the end of a dizzying hallway. It’s one of her more literal pieces—others are far more abstract. “When I paint a landscape or a seascape, I’m not very sure it’s a landscape or a seascape,” she has said. “It’s a thought form rather than a realistic form.”

After moving to Paris in the late 1920s, Vieira da Silva not only began finding her footing in the art world, but it’s where she met her husband, Hungarian painter Árpád Szenes. The pair eventually fled France with World War II underway, briefly residing in Brazil before returning in 1947. By the 1950s, she became an internationally lauded contemporary artist known for her complex and abstract compositions.

Vieira da Silva continued to paint and exhibit her work until her death in 1992. In addition to a museum in Lisbon that honors her career (along with her husband’s), her paintings can be found at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Tate in London. Considering how influential Vieira da Silva was to Post-War abstractionism, it’s puzzling that specifics about her life are scant. Whatever the reason, Vieira da Silva’s legacy is certainly elusive. What’s more, it inspires curiosity. But then again, so does her work.

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