Maria-Helena Vieira da Silva's L'éloge de la folie presents the viewer with a strange, swirling, semi-abstracted vista. This picture cuts to the heart of the ideas that inform Vieira da Silva's strongest paintings: it is at once disorientating, plunging us into a world of impossibly distant vanishing points, and yet consoling and reassuring in giving us a sense of place. Both in terms of the maze-like layout of the brushstrokes that coalesce to create the illusion of this deep zone of receding planes and in terms of that profound impression of fictitious space, Vieira da Silva is locating us, albeit in terms suited to the existentialism that so infused and informed the era in which she developed this aesthetic. "In my paintings you see this uncertainty, this terrible labyrinth," Vieira da Silva explained. "That is my heaven, that labyrinth, and perhaps there is just a little certainty to be found in the centre of it" (Vieira da Silva quoted in G. Rosenthal, Vieira da Silva 1908-1992: The Quest for Unknown Space, Cologne 1998, p. 83). Thus L'éloge de la folie combines both anxiety and hope, filling the viewer both with a sense of awe, of being lost, and with a notion of direction, some hint of being anchored amidst the swirling chaos of life in the Post-War era. This chimes with the artist's own anxieties about place: during her childhood, and later during the Second World War, she lived a rootless life in perpetual exile, fleeing political instability; L'éloge de la folie therefore taps into her own desire for a feeling of geographic stillness and certainty.
Crucially, the picture bares the traces of its own construction, of the artist's slow and meticulous movements in conjuring up this landscape of the mind: "In adding little stain after little stain, laboriously, like a bee, the picture makes itself. A picture should have its heart, its nervous system, its bones and its circulation. It should resemble a person in its movements" (Vieira da Silva quoted in G. Whelan and J-F. Jaeger, Vieira da Silva, Geneva 1993, p. 91). The picture has thus come into existence in part through organic means, as a direct product of that same sense of chance and hazard that it records.
It is telling, looking at L'éloge de la folie, that Vieira da Silva managed to condense a fascinating range of influences into the development of her idiosyncratic aesthetic. From the azulejos, the decorative tiles that covered so many building surfaces in her native Lisbon, to the engineering evident in the constructions of Gustave Eiffel both in Portugal and in her adopted home, Paris, from the check tablecloths of the paintings of Pierre Bonnard to the mysterious and mystic forms in Paul Klee's work, Vieira da Silva distilled a wide number of influences, allowing her pictures to breath with a strange narrative poetry. They combine art and architecture, of sheet music and scrawled manuscripts as well as mazes and blueprints, introducing a sense of the rational, a sense of precision, to this elusive and illusory scene. Crucially, L'éloge de la folie retains some spectral hint of the figurative: some of the forms provide fleeting glimpses of imaginary constructions, of windows, doors and scaffolding, yet all these dissolve on further inspection into a matrix of marks, into an illusion of space.