Exhibition: Maria Helena Vieira da Silva - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2021-11-12 • 2022-03-13

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Room 33

This year, FIG Bilbao is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a solid history in its twofold role as fair and promoter of activities that support and share the value of works on paper. This year's event features the participation of Portugal as the guest country, and for this reason the museum's activity spotlights one of the most internationally renowned personalities in twentieth-century Portuguese art: the Lisbon-based painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva.

The museum has been partnering with FIG Bilbao ever since the Festival first got underway in 2012, and since then it has hosted exhibitions every year, including Giovanni Battista Piranesi (2012); Mimmo Paladino (2014), Lucas van Leyden (2015), The Culture of Wine. Masters of printmaking from the Vivanco Collection (2016), Beyond black. The colour printing in the collection of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (2017) and Eduardo Arroyo, Engraver (2020).

Thus, the museum's contribution to the festival confirms its longstanding dedication to works on paper, while also furthering the knowledge and dissemination of art made by women. In this sense, it is important to recall that between May and June 1983, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum presented the exhibition Vieira da Silva. Graphic Works and soon thereafter acquired 8 lithographs for its collection, which are now being exhibited again alongside three other works that the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture deposited in the museum years later in 1996.

On the occasion of that exhibition, the gallery notes that the museum made available to visitors contained the words of the historian, friend and expert in the artist's works, Guy Weelen: 'The engravings of Vieira da Silva are situated within the artist's entire oeuvre without hindering its development, without changing the meaning', thus revealing the harmony and interests shared by her graphic works and her paintings.

The 11 lithographs being shown now as part of the FIG Bilbao festival are a small yet select group that represent the artist's works on paper spanning from the late 1960s to 1991, one year before her death in Paris. The painting Passage des miroirs (Hall of Mirrors) (1981), which the museum acquired in 1982, is also being displayed alongside them.

In this tenth edition, another prestigious Portuguese artist will also display her works in the FIG fairgrounds, namely Paula Rego with her Nursery Rhymes series, comprised of 31 engraving associated with the world of children's literature and inspired by the oral tradition of English nursery rhymes, which the artist has been familiar with since her childhood due to her anglophile upbringing. This series was published by Marlborough Graphics in 1989.

The presence of Portugal will also be reflected at the Festival through two Portuguese universities' participation in the 'Cubes of Temptations' programme: the Polytechnic of Leiria (School of Arts and Design) and the Fine Arts Faculty at the Universidade do Porto.

On the other hand, the fair will also have a selection of six Portuguese art galleries, including the Portuguese Printmaking Centre CPS, Carrasco Gallery, Bessa Pereira Gallery, Nave Gallery, Trema Gallery and Perve Gallery.

From a perspective that will merge tourism and art, prominent Portuguese wines will be featured in the event 'Glasses of Poetry and Engraving' on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 at 1 pm. This initiative, which is limited to groups of 40 people, associates the wines from different regions in Portugal with poets. As the tasting is being led by Andr Pinguel from Wine Post, the storyteller Sandra Nobre will recite a poem that evokes the essence of Portugal.

A key figure in the Paris School, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was born in Lisbon in 1908 and got her earliest artistic training there. In 1928, she travelled to Paris and enrolled in La Grande Chaumière academy to attend the classes taught by the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. In 1929, she abandoned sculpture and began to practise painting and engraving, and she often visited the ateliers of Fernand Léger. One year later, in 1930, she married the Hungarian painter Arpad Szenes.

In 1933, the gallery owner Jeanne Bucher organised her first individual show, and in 1934 the painter Massimo Campigli bought her first work. Throughout the 1930s, despite her youth, her career began to garner fame. That was also when she discovered 'constructive art' from the Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres García, which would become very important in her oeuvre.

During this period, several influences converged in Vieira de Silva's painting, from spatialism to lyric abstraction, which crystallised in a wholly personal style where the figurative foundation is altered by a lack of definition and vibrating light that create surreal scenes. Her most representative compositions are arranged by a set of marked lines with which Vieira da Silva organised planes and built geometric webs. Her paintings, made with dense impasto, suggest urban developments, rooms in perspective, cluttered libraries, hallways or imaginary labyrinths where art critics have also seen reminiscences of Portuguese tiles and the intricate urban layout of Lisbon. Along with painting, Vieira da Silva also made designs, often on commission, for book illustrations, ceramics, stained-glass windows?like the ones in the cathedral of Reims (France)?and tapestries, as well as engraved works.

In 1937, she exhibited her art in Paris, and Baroness Hilla Rebay purchased one of her works for the Guggenheim Museum collection. When the Second World War broke out, the painter and her husband moved to Brazil, where they turned their atelier in Río de Janeiro into a meeting point for other young artists. She held her first individual exhibition in New York in 1946.

During the second half of the century until her death in Paris in 1992, Vieira da Silva garnered recognition from critics and the art world, and she kept up intense work with exhibitions all over Europe, the United States and Brazil. Retrospectives of her work were held at the Musée de Grenoble (France) and the Museo Cívico in Turin (Italy) (1964); the Musée National d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (1969?1970); the Musée Fabre in Montpellier (France) (1971); and the Juan March Foundation in Madrid (1991), among others. Numerous museums acquired the painter's works for their collections, and she received important distinctions, such as the Grand Prize in International Painting in São Paulo (1962); membership in the Fine Arts Academy of Portugal (1970); Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour (1979); membership in the Academia das Ciências, das Artes e das Letras of Lisbon (1984); and honorary membership in the Royal Academy of Arts of London (1988). In 1991, she was promoted to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honour of the French government.