Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
Waddington Custot Gallery, London
On until 15th February 2020 (FREE)
I came across the work of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908 - 1992) a couple of years ago at Frieze London. It was a painting with a dark background depicting intriguing abstract geometric lines. A very eye catching painting. I remember thinking she might be Brazilian given her name. I later discovered that she was born in Portugal and spent most of her life in France. She did live in Rio de Janeiro for a short stint during World War II, reminiscent of the Portuguese royal family in 1807 when they fled Portugal for Brazil days before Napoleonic forces invaded Lisbon. Colony to the rescue once again!
Maria Helena's current exhibition in London comprises twenty nine paintings including some works on paper and cardboard that spans the artist's entire career with some works made as late as 1991. There are clear influences of Cubism and Geometric Abstraction in her work but it is quite clear that the artist uses these influences to create something rather distinctive. She plays with perspective and manipulates space in a way that makes it look malleable. Some of her paintings can feel dizzying, almost nauseating not unlike the experience of looking at some of Bridget Riley's works. Other paintings seem to hint toward a world of Alice in the Wonderland. Most of her compositions seem to use a grid-like structure as a tool to ply space generating truly outstanding pieces of mostly abstract works. The figures that you do see in some of her works seem secondary to space itself.
Ballet or Les arlequins, 1946 is a really interesting example of a work where depictions of dancers are merged with the space that surrounds them in a dream-like fashion where boundaries are non-existent. The use of perspective and colour somewhat serves to bring the viewer in. It's likely that this work was made during Maria Helena's stay in Brazil.
Red houses, 1963 was probably my favourite. A small, vibrant, horizontal painting dominated by striking shades of red and hints of pretty much every other colour in the rainbow. The grid looked like windows and sometimes you could see tiny figures through the opening.
Her later paintings favour lighter tones with white prevalent. They have a much calmer feel reinforced by their titles - Vers la lumière, 1991 and Chemins de la paix, 1985 - and are larger than most of the other paintings on show.
I wish that works such as La gare inondée, 1956, La traboule, 1957 and Ruines, 1956 - mentioned on the press release as examples of works influenced by post-war Europe - were being exhibited. The exhibition has come from Jeanne Bucher Jaeger in Paris - the artist's very first dealer who remained with her throughout her career - and will travel to Di Donna Galleries in New York.