Gestures and Geometries: Two Exceptions
On Juana Francés and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
“For the woman painter it is usually an article of praise to declare that her work appears to be done by the hand of a man… In art the woman is imitative by predisposition. Even without realising it she is incapable of creating her own work with conviction and femininity, and even less so of breaking new ground.”
Manuel Sanches Camargo in Revista (1955)
Vastly different in their background and experience, and far apart in their visual language, both artists have been historised under the loose umbrella of Art Informel. Maria Helena Vieira da Silva is considered today as a leading member of Art Informel, while Juana Francés is regarded as one of the leading representatives of Informalism in Spain. But, in fact, neither oeuvre fits neatly into the parameters of classical art history, especially today, when the canonical interpretations of so many artists’ works are experiencing such radical shifts. Calling their work Informel is an imprecision in the least, since it expands far beyond this and encompasses a rich variety of “foreign” figurative accents integrated in their respective practices. However, in the framework of this text, I will keep the notion of Informalism as one of their current “locations”, a place of an interrupted historisation for Francés and some transitional spot for Vieira’s incessantly shifting, oscillating (and gradually dissolving) attempts to anchor herself in one version of abstraction, in yet another “ism”.
This small exhibition represents my first attempt at a gendered reading of the work by Francés and Vieira da Silva, a “mise en perspective” of certain selected aspects of their practices within the aesthetic apparatus of Informalism. It doesn’t follow the classical logic of comparative analysis, but rather tries to organise a staged encounter of two women artists which leads to several pertinent questions. I am not interested in reading their work against a background of some monolithic female condition. Still, I would like to integrate the fact that both artists were women and interrogate how this situates their work in a specific and significant way in relation to matter, gesture, expanded field and some other characteristics. How shall we begin to situate their practices today, to do justice to the fundamental idiosyncrasies of their work and their continual experimentations with the very groundwork of Art Informel?
What exactly could situate their practices? How, for example, did their lives in dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, respectively, affect their work and their idiosyncratic ways of thinking and creating? Vieira da Silva had to escape and live in exile; she changed countries and places and resided in Paris from 1947. Francés lived and created under conditions of the Francoist patriarchy and had to make professional choices even before the 1961 Law on Political Rights. Until then, women’s professional activities were severely restrained; they needed male authorisation to have a job and were forced to leave their work when they married. What did it mean for her to adopt the major “style virile” of the postwar period, such as Informalism?… “Juana Francés deserves to be considered the exception…, writes Carles Guerra, because as a woman she adopts a code that was maintained hegemonic by men.” Francés was the only woman in the all-male El Paso group; she was also one of the best educated and artistically trained members, having graduated from an art school in Madrid and having travelled to Paris on a scholarship.
Throughout their careers, both broke numerous rules for “women artists” through the complexity of their work and their tireless explorations of the fundamentals of modernity. Very often, their work was moreover read through the established male gendered normativity. Francés’ close friend Francisco Farreras said, with the intention of praising her: “Before any of the works that characterize her different eras and periods, nothing could make one think that behind that expressive visual strength, those powerful compositions created with paint and sand, there existed an eminently female presence”. Another of her contemporaries praises the “impulsive violence” of her canvases, Giuseppe Marchioni, 1962. Cerni admires how matter, in her work “becomes the instrument of a struggle of the vital in an absurd fight against time” 1966.
What should our questions be then? What shall we ask these canvases today? And how can we continue to situate them? Vieira da Silva has had a rich extended critical reception, while Juana Francés is barely known in France, and yet I would like to address one and the same issue in relation to their work. This issue is tactility, or experience connected to our sense of touch.
It is more obvious in Francés’ case. She started to use sand and grit almost immediately in her version of Informel. This technique transformed the flat canvases into a raised and relief-like surface. It emphasized the materiality of the pigment and the tactility of colour extending into space. From very early on, Francés was clear that her abstraction seeks an “intimate necessity to express her world” and the artist describes her paintings as self-portraits. At the same time, she keeps quite concrete, “realist” titles for some of them, in which the word “tierra” appears frequently (Como la tierra (1962) is included in this exhibition). “Tierra” is rich in significance; it can mean land, earth, ground, soil, dust and the world in general. In Francés’ work, it can be considered her own vision of “matter” – one of the chief preoccupations of Informalism. However, through “tierra”, Francés grounds us more explicitly in a context radically differing from the mere fascination with the abstraction of “matter” and the brute materiality of canvases turning into clichés.
The question of tactility is far less obvious in Vieira’s meticulously constructed spaces-surfaces and her expanding, dissolving, and pulsating geometries. And yet, a fascinating reading of her work by Marsha Meskimmon brings us to the same place and provides us with a new pertinent interpretation of her work. In her book “Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics”, Meskimmon analyses Vieira’s pioneering work “Library”, 1949, seen as a fundamental exploration of embodiment. Meskimmon reads it through the lens of “situated knowledges” as defined by Donna Haraway. This idea posits that all forms of knowledge reflect the particular conditions in which they are produced. Knowledges are always produced by a located and embodied subject and in a geographically and historically specific perspective.
In “Women Making Art”, Haraway’s groundbreaking polemic against a “conquering gaze from nowhere” is developed and applied to Vieira’s non-conformist geometric thinking and the mobile and mutable formations of her paintings. Vieira goes beyond the simple illusion of tangibility in a painting. She embeds the visual in the tangible and grounds the perspective in embodiment. She paints “marvellous movements of the embodied eye in the world”. Vieira’s immersive optical effects “break apart the false “objectivity” of universal systems of perspective” and modernist formalism alike. Her paintings “concern acts of vision in a tactile space”.
We are only at the very beginning of understanding both artists’ work as practices which constitute their “embodied place in the world”. Their complexly layered compositions and dense spaces reconfigure the elements associated with Informel; they put a particular emphasis on the relationship between tactility and the perception of pictorial space. We still need to understand how they negotiate the embodiment within the preconceptions of knowledge, power and meaning of their time, their respective geographies and social situations. I would like to argue here that both see the body as “situation”, rather than “object” and that tactility is a much more important value in their work then previously assumed.
 Juana Francés: Informalism Was Also Female [exh. cat.]. Barcelona: Mayoral, 2020, p. 30.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Marsha Meskimmon. Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics. London: Routledge, 2003.