‘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
Painted in 1957, and widely exhibited over the following four decades, La Plage de Vieira (The Beach of Vieira) is a captivating scape of vivid colour, kaleidoscopic perspective and existential intensity by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. Dark, sinuous horizontal strokes cut through fields of pearlescent grey and blue to conjure multiple horizons; the entire canvas is divided into glinting, rhythmic planes, creating the effect of endlessly superimposed landscapes, of myriad skies reflected in myriad glassy oceans. Tiny, colourful gridded networks of red, purple, blue and yellow nestle within each section, like the blinking lights or windows of a floating city viewed from afar. Without a single vanishing point, our eye dances constantly between foreground and background, between the painting’s teeming, gemlike mosaics of colour and its commanding lines of stark, almost geometric structure. Blending aspects of Cubism, Constructivism and Futurism in an idiom entirely her own, Vieira da Silva conjures a vision of fractured and multiplied space that is powerfully expressive of the disorientated human condition in the years after the Second World War. During the War itself, when she was exiled to Rio de Janeiro, Vieira da Silva’s paintings were often charged with despair. Gradually, however, she consolidated the shattering of traditional perspectives – in art and the world alike – into spectacular new ways of seeing. Man had lost the coordinates of his own existence, and Vieira da Silva started afresh. Her paintings’ complex, architectural fretworks of line and colour can be seen to foreshadow the geopolitically-scaled works of Julie Mehretu, and even the ‘social abstraction’ of Mark Bradford. Embracing and transcending the chaos of the modern world, La Plage de Vieira is a scintillating, celebratory space of exploration.
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 were rewriting 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. La Plage de Vieira bears clear hallmarks of these lessons: the composition is almost crystalline in form, echoing the facets and planes of colour in Cézanne’s landscapes; its combination of distance and closeness, of frontality and insistent depth, recalls the impossible spaces of her early Italian forebears. Their work, like hers, engaged with painting as a metaphysical Theatrum Mundi or ‘theatre of the world’. Vieira da Silva’s striking innovation was to incorporate such ideas while also – with cues from the Cubists and Futurists – freeing her painting from the tyranny of a single vantage point. La Plage de Vieira seems to recede to the left, right and centre all at once, leading the eye to track restlessly over every dynamic inch of the canvas. There is no entrance or exit: the painting is a maze without a centre, a realm that seems a fragment of some inconceivably vast whole. For Vieira da Silva, getting lost in a labyrinth becomes a way of coming to terms with the fantastic complexity of the world. Vital, vibrant and intricate, La Plage de Vieira is a compelling invitation into her reality.