Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva © DR
Visual arts

A retrospective of the work of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva at the Musée Cantini (France-Portugal 2022 Season)

For forty years, I have always looked for the same thing, but I haven’t found it.

As part of the France-Portugal 2022 Season implemented by the Institut français, the Musée Cantini, Museum of Modern Art of the City of Marseille, is dedicating a retrospective to the painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva from 9 June to 6 November 2022. A portrait of this icon of the School of Paris and trailblazer of abstract landscapism. 

Published on 27/06/2022

5 min

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was born into the upper-middle-class and avant-garde circles of Lisbon. At a very early age, she embarked upon multidisciplinary artistic studies, which she continued in Paris from 1928. There, she learned sculpture from Antoine Bourdelle and Charles Despiau, and painting alongside Ferdinand Léger and Roger Bissière. It was also at this time that she met the Hungarian painter Árpád Szenes, who would become her life partner. An influential member of the School of Paris, she went into exile with her husband during the Second World War, first in Lisbon, then in Rio de Janeiro. On returning to Paris in 1947, she made a name for herself as one of the trailblazers of abstract painting. This was the start of a career marked by exceptional institutional recognition and numerous collaborations with the major names of her time. 

Despite extensive training in many different techniques, Vieira da Silva stood out immediately for her highly recognisable aesthetic, halfway between Cubism and abstract landscapism. Her work is rooted in ancient influences, such as stained-glass art and Renaissance painting. She once declared that “classical art opened me up to modern art”. That said, it was the modern city, with its architectural metamorphoses and mechanical flows, that supplied her key material. Characterised by compositions featuring a square motif with plays on perspective and the convergence of lines, her paintings attest to her work on spatial fragmentation. At times colourful, yet with the tangible anxiety of exile and war, Vieira da Silva’s work is also the product of numerous collaborations with the major poets of her time, such as René Char and Léopold Senghor. 

Fleeing Nazism, Vieira da Silva and her husband, Árpád Szenes, spent a large proportion of the Second World War in Brazil. This marked the start of an international career during which she exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century Gallery, and won the São Paulo Biennale in 1961. Her career is also inextricably linked to her lifelong gallerist, Jeanne Bucher, who organised her first solo exhibition in 1933. Recognised and celebrated during her lifetime, a host of retrospectives were dedicated to her work from the 1960s onwards, leading to commissions from French and Portuguese public institutions. In 1990s, the Arpad Szenes-Vieira da Silva Foundation opened in Lisbon, dedicated to the study and conservation of the couple’s work. 

  • 1908


    Born in Lisbon, where she begins studying fine arts at the age of eleven.

  • 1928


    Arrives and settles in Paris.

  • 1933


    Her first solo exhibition, organised by Jeanne Bucher.

  • 1961


    Painting prize at the São Paulo Biennale.

  • 1988


    A solo exhibition is dedicated to her at the Grand Palais, in Paris.

  • 2022


    The Musée Cantini dedicates a retrospective to her as part of the France-Portugal 2022 Season.

The Institut français and the exhibition

The retrospective of the work of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva at the Musée Cantini is organized as part of the France-Portugal 2022 Season, implemented by the Institut français for the French part. 

Find out more about the France-Portugal 2022 Season 

L'institut français, LAB