Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was born on 13 June 1908, in Lisbon. In 1919 she enrolled at the Academia de Belas Artes, Lisbon, to study drawing with Emilia Santos Braga. She moved to Paris in 1928 to continue her formal training, attending Emile-Antoine Bourdelle’s sculpture course at the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière. While in Paris, she absorbed a variety of influences — from the geometric abstraction of the group Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square, 1929-33) and Joaquín Torres-García to the decorative style of the Nabis.
Vieira da Silva’s early paintings were influenced by each of these trends, as well as the Hispano-Arabic Azulejo tiles, cobbled pavements and tiered architecture of Lisbon. With its keen sense of rhythm and pattern, seemingly marrying the aesthetics of Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism, Vieira da Silva’s early work reflects a sensitivity that would become a main component in her more mature paintings. She had her first solo exhibition in 1933 at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris, exhibiting illustrations from a children’s book along with a few paintings. At the outbreak of World War II, Vieira da Silva and her husband, Hungarian painter Arpad Szenès, fled to Portugal before moving to Rio de Janeiro the following year. Vieira da Silva continued to paint and exhibit in Brazil until she and Szenès were able to return to Paris in 1947.
The subject matter of Vieira da Silva’s 1950s paintings focuses on the postwar environment: cities that had been burned or flooded, alleyways, sunsets, and landscapes (both natural and built). Vieira da Silva became a French citizen in 1956, and two years later had her first retrospective at the Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover. In 1962, was awarded the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. She was the first woman to receive the French Grand Prix Nationale des Arts in 1966. That same year, she accepted a commission to design a stained-glass window for the east chapel apse at Reims Cathedral, France. During her life, Vieira da Silva had retrospectives at the Musée de Grenoble, France (1964); Museo Civico, Turin, Italy (1964); Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris (1969-70); Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France (1971); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1977); and Fundación Juan March, Madrid (1991). She also was the honoured artist at the São Paulo Biennial (1989). She continued to paint and live in Paris until her death on 6 March 1992.
Vieira da Silva’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao; Kunstmuseum Basel; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Tate Collection, London.
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