‘A painting should have a heart, a nervous system, bones and circulation. It should appear to be a person in its movements’
–Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
‘In these disaster pictures, she practically forced figurative elements into her spatial system, despite the formal strains that this involved. She tightened the tension created by the latent contradiction between the real space, represented, and space as an abstract entity in her art almost to breaking point’
One of the artist’s greatest paintings, and featured in numerous important solo exhibitions across Europe and South America over the past fifty years – including her major 1970 retrospective at Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon – Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s L’Incendie I (The Fire I) (1944) is a stunning conflagration of colour, form and motion. A city is aflame. Swirling tendrils of red, blue, orange, yellow and white swallow the canvas, towering upward in a sinuous inferno that consumes all in its path. A dark, smoky sky is almost pushed out of the picture. While the composition might seem abstract from afar, on closer inspection myriad faces and figures appear among the blaze. Many wear helmets. They fight the fire or stand stoic, gathered in crowds or shrouded in intricate tongues of flame. To the lower left, a ladder reaches a boy in an upper window. A starburst of fiery radiance explodes outward from the centre of the canvas, lending the scene an air of divine visitation or mirage. Indeed, even as she blends aspects of Cubism, Constructivism and Futurism in a decidedly modern idiom, Vieira da Silva’s dynamic brushwork recalls the ecstatic, dramatic visions of El Greco and the thronged intensity of Hieronymus Bosch’s allegorical fever dreams. This work was made during the artist’s wartime exile from Lisbon in Rio de Janeiro, where she lived with her husband from 1940 to 1947 before returning to Paris. Closely related to her major 1942 work Le Désastre (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon), it is charged with deeply felt emotion, expressing her painful isolation in Brazil and her anguish at the horrors of war unfolding in Europe while also exemplifying her magnificent, radical command of rhythm, movement and space in paint.
Born in Lisbon in 1908, Vieira da Silva followed her love of painting to study in Paris when she was nineteen years old. She found a city intoxicated with the glory and innovation of modern art. Vieira da Silva was astonished by the structures of visible reality revealed in the paintings of Cézanne, and by the ways in which Cubism and Futurism shattered the rules of depth, distance and linear perspective that had dominated painting since the Renaissance. On a study trip to Italy in the summer of 1928, the Trecento and Quattrocento frescoes of Giotto, Masaccio, Lorenzetti and Uccello led to her realisation that space in art is relative, intimately connected to its historical moment and the prevailing philosophy of the age. L’Incendie I bears clear hallmarks of these early lessons: the vast blaze is almost crystalline in form, echoing the facets and planes of colour in Cézanne’s landscapes; the crowded foreground has the frontal logic of a painted altarpiece; the teeming wisps of fire and smoke recall the bristling forests of spear and bayonet in Uccello’s battle scenes, or even Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Triumph of Death (1562-63). Vieira da Silva’s striking innovation is to incorporate such ideas while also – with cues from the Cubists and Futurists – freeing her painting from the tyranny of a single vantage point. L’Incendie I seems to offer vanishing points to left, right and centre all at once, leading the eye to track restlessly over every turbulent inch of the canvas, unable to escape the flames.
Developing from the more abstract experiments in pattern, space and depth she made before her move to Brazil – many of which resemble tiled rooms or enclosures – this work’s depiction of people also makes a powerful statement about the situation of humanity in 1944. In the throes of war, and in an era still reeling from Heisenberg and Einstein’s revisions of ideas about how matter and light behaved in space and time, little seemed certain. Man was no longer the centre of the universe. With its disorienting, nonanthropocentric sense of space, L’Incendie I seems to posit its human subjects as helpless, dwarfed and overwhelmed by forces beyond their control. Where the ‘force lines’ and layered simultaneity of many Futurist paintings had sought to celebrate the vivid complexity, speed and progress of modern life, Vieira da Silva’s gushing fire engulfs and devastates in its dynamism. Before the movement largely petered out with the advent of the First World War, the Futurist Manifesto of 1909 had declared ‘We will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene’. Vieira da Silva moves on from such blind, aggressive optimism into a richer vision that acknowledges both the creative and destructive elements of modern existence. Her famed 1943 painting La partie d’échecs (The Game of Chess) (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) likewise disintegrates figure and ground, the two players disappearing into an infinite, receding floor that envelops them and the chessboard in its dizzying chequered pattern. The Brazilian poet Murilo Mendes asked: ‘Are these two people or two machines? Are they deciding the outcome of the chess game or the fate of the world?’ (M. Mendes, quoted in N. A. Aguiar, ‘Vieira da Silva no Brasil’, Colóquio de Artes, Lisbon, 1976, p. 12). Splintering time, space, people and structures in a searing inferno of fire and feeling, L’Incendie I cries out against that world’s cataclysmic violence. Yet in its thrilling, intelligent modernity, this painting also affirms that destruction can birth majestic new ways of seeing. Razing artistic tradition to the ground, Vieira da Silva’s vision rises bright, burning and phoenix-like from the ashes.