Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was born in Lisbon on 13 June 1908 into an enlightened upper middle-class family. She spent the first few years of her life in Switzerland, where her father was the ambassador. He died when she was three years old and she returned to Lisbon with her mother. From then on she was brought up in the family of her mother, whose father, José Silva Graça, a committed republican, was the founder of the major daily newspaper O Século. They lived in a large house in the city, the Silva Graça palacete. It so happens that this “little palace” standing in a large garden was transformed into a luxury hotel in 1931 by Silva Graça’s other son-in-law, José Rugeroni, the first major Rolls Royce representative in Portugal. In 1942, the Armenian billionaire Calouste Gulbenkian moved into the hotel and lived there with his family and associates until his death in 1955, leaving the artistic treasures of his fabulous collection to Portugal in the form of a Foundation created in 1956. In 1983, the Gulbenkian Foundation opened an annexe that was to become a Centre for Modern Art with, among other things, a large collection of works by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. The circle was complete!
On 13 June, Lisbon commemorates St Anthony, who was born into a noble family in the city in 1195. He became a companion of Francis of Assisi after 1221, and died in Padua, on 13 June 1231.
13 June 1888, precisely, is also the date of birth in Lisbon of Fernando Pessoa, author of a major poetic work that Maria Helena Vieira da Silva liked to evoke. As, in fact, she liked to recall the popular Lisbon celebrations of Saint Anthony’s Day, especially after the return of democracy to Portugal in 1974.
From her grandfather’s anti-monarchic beliefs she inherited lifelong democratic convictions and open-mindedness. After her studies and initial artistic training in Portugal, she came to study in Paris in 1928, accompanied by her mother. She enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and took part in the vibrant Parisian art scene. In 1930 she married the Hungarian-born painter Arpad Szenes, who often painted her – painting. That is what she did. 1928 was also the year of her first major participation in a collective exhibition in Lisbon featuring all the important Portuguese painters and sculptors of the day. The 1930s were very productive, both with the Jeanne Bucher gallery, with which she would remain linked throughout her life, and with other artistic circles. At the same time, in 1935, she and Arpad joined the artistic and intellectual association Les Amis du Monde, whose members developed forms of resistance to the rise of fascism and the extreme right in Europe. During the Second World War, the couple moved to Portugal, briefly, and then from 1940 onwards to Brazil, whence they returned in 1947. In the meantime, Maria Helena had her first exhibition in New York in 1945. They were something of a stateless couple: Arpad had lost his nationality and Maria Helena had been stripped of hers by marriage, despite repeated requests to the Portuguese authorities, who refused to give it back for political reasons, the country being governed by an extreme right-wing dictatorship. In 1956, France granted the couple French nationality. It was at this time that Maria Helena and Arpad bought the house at 34, rue de l’Abbé Carton. It was also during these years, at the end of the 1950s and then in the 1960s and 1970s, that, while never ceasing to paint and draw on paper, she began to create works in other media, such as tapestry and stained glass (notably for the church of Saint-Jacques in Reims, towards the end of the 1960s, recalling the infinite repetitions of geometric forms in her Library paintings, for example) and, later, walls made of azulejo, Portuguese-style tiles (here we may mention the decoration of the Cidade Universitária metro station in Lisbon, in 1988, in which she even came back to explicit figuration). She exhibited throughout Europe, Brazil and Latin America, and then again in New York. After the Carnation Revolution of 1974, she was happy to be able to freely return to Portugal. She loved to walk in the hills around Sintra, through the dense labyrinth of the forest opening onto the Atlantic, the water and the light. And to look at Lisbon. When you have walked that city’s streets ever since childhood you absorb the geometry of the white limestone paving stones and the designs in black basalt paving stones that are the very ground of its urbanism. I have always found that some of her paintings carried a reminder of this design as well as of the geometric “piling up” of houses presented by the city’s hills when contemplated from the opposite side. Fernando Pessoa had also observed this in The Book of Disquiet. Just as she liked the piling-up of books in the Libraries, from the first one, painted in 1949, to the “on fire” one in 1974. We know that her grandfather owned a huge library and that Maria Helena was a great reader from childhood. We know that she illustrated books, notably for the poet René Char. Her Library paintings are also a fantastic world, with holes of light or spirals that draw everything into infinity. Here too, if only by returning to the date of 13 June, a harmonious loop is completed.
The evolution of her art, which can be seen as a path from figuration to abstraction, via nods to cubism, or even a few ventures into other forms of expression, is nevertheless striking for its geometric precision, its effects of colour and transparency, its tendency to organise around distant vanishing points, and the ruptures caused by the light that jump out at the viewer. At the end of the 1950s, in the canvases painted at her home on Rue de l’Abbé Carton, Paris, we can observe the maintenance of this quasi-abstract geometric precision with tunnels of light or the opening of spaces that aspire to infinity. We also see the organisation of the canvas in vertical lines, sometimes slanting, at other times shifting, leaving white spaces in order to give these lines which are often blue, anthracite grey, sometimes subtly coloured here and there, a starkness in the light, a wrenching quality – in any case, a personal style.
In fact, the house on Rue de l’Abbé Carton was divided into two buildings: the one facing the street, the actual living quarters, where she liked to receive visitors for tea or a meal, with Arpad present or elsewhere, upstairs or in his own studio; and, at the back, a small courtyard led to the second house, with her own studio, a spacious, high-ceilinged white room with all her equipment, the cabinets for storing her paintings and works on paper and hi-fi for listening to music. Sometimes she would invite me in; she would sit in front of the canvas, we would talk or remain silent and she would resume painting. I remember Beethoven’s quartets one afternoon, whose auditory pattern matched the line of her painting. The small courtyard was kept in precise order, with low plants, flowers, a few ceramic objects that she had deliberately arranged, and the pathway lined with azulejos that she had collected from all over Portugal, or that had been given to her. Later, in the 1980s, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva returned, in relatively large canvases, to forms, to cities – Lisbon, among others, urban patterns – as a memorial suggestion; little by little, with a spatula, she removed certain colours of which she left just a trace in the light of the clear space.
In these canvases from the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were already the two sides, the strength of the colours in the geometric “piles,” signifying and spiralling, and the whiteness crossed by vertical or dance-like graphic markings.
Marie Helena Vieira da Silva died in her home on 6 March 1992. A new street in Paris, just nearby, now bears her name.
We can now compare her paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s, across an arc of time and space, with the luminous flashes breaking through the earthy background of the abstract forms by Juana Francés. It is pleasing to evoke these two women, in the east and the west, who are looking for the light, in this same Iberian Peninsula, governed by two dictatorships.
It was in the Levante region, near Alicante, that a sublime Iberian sculpture from the 5th century BC, a richly decorated bust of a woman, the Lady of Elche, was discovered, in 1897. Juana Francés was born in Alicante in 1924. Valencian, or southern Catalan, is spoken here and, officially, Spanish. In 1941, two years after the end of the Civil War, Juana and her family moved to Madrid. In 1945, the young artist entered the Central School of Fine Arts in San Fernando, where she received a solid training as a visual artist and, although the school was rather traditional, an openness to all the artistic movements from Goya through the first half of the twentieth century, especially under the beneficial and fundamental input of Daniel Vazquez Diaz, who influenced many artists at the time. In 1951 Juana went to Paris on a scholarship, where she further developed her knowledge and practice. On her return to Madrid, she held her first solo exhibition at the Sala Xagra.
Initially linked to figuration, while taking influences from geometric art, surrealism, expressionism and cubism, Juana created her own identity by experimenting with new processes: use different textures or, around 1953, painting with encaustic, a technique from Mediterranean antiquity which naturally she could relate to (Jasper Johns would also use it from 1954 onwards). It was also around this time that she abandoned figuration for abstraction. From 1956 onwards, her informalist style incorporated other materials, such as sand, on the canvas. Her works became more and more telluric, using browns, ochres and blacks (the black scratching of Como tierra, 1959), but from this darkness light can and often does emerge.
El Paso was founded in 1957 by herself and six other painters, an architect, two art critics and two sculptors, including Pablo Serrano, who would become her husband. She was the only woman. Note that although her name is always mentioned, in some photos of the group there are only men. Still, she was not only a founding figure but also a resolutely egalitarian, or as we would say nowadays, feminist figure. El Paso offered Spain the most innovative avant-gardes of the day. Introducing informal art, abstract expressionism, anti-academic experimentation and even revolt, the group held its first major exhibition at the Buchholtz gallery-bookshop. It is curious to think that Karl Buchholtz, an art dealer, was employed in Nazi Germany to sell works of so-called “degenerate art” around the world from 1938 onwards. Expelled in 1942, he founded a gallery-bookshop in Lisbon and three years later another in Madrid, which hosted this famous exhibition. The group dissolved in 1960, but it left its mark on the history of 20th-century Spanish art.
After the 1960s, Juana Francés pursued a free career, returning for some years to figuration, to the use of objects, to bitter questioning. Then, during the last ten years of her life (she died in 1990), she turned to abstraction, more joyful, more brilliant. Light again.
In fact it is already there, when we look at her works from the El Paso period, and just after, because we cannot help but be struck by the strength of the brushstrokes that pierce the complex, almost three-dimensional pictorial material of the canvas like a burst of light, or open up its depths.
In a magnificent photograph, we see her, a woman painter, a lone artist, standing in front of her work, lying on the floor (Pollock, a man standing, his canvas on the floor, at the same time), just as we see Vieira da Silva standing, alone, in front of a vertical canvas.
Iberian women, unique creators.