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  • 'Perspective is a way of playing with space. I take a lot of pleasure in looking at space and its rhythms. The architecture of a city has connections to music. There are long notes, and short notes. There are small windows, and large windows.' —Maria Helena Vieira da Silva Depicting a fractured landscape executed in rhythmic blues, whites and blacks, Champs de Sainte-Claire is a shimmering example of the studied balance between rigid geometric organisation and the disruptive potential of colour that characterises Portuguese-French artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s distinguished body of work. Widely considered to be Portugal’s ‘greatest contemporary painter’, Vieira da Silva adopted a unique approach to the depiction of space in her work, abandoning traditional perspectival devices in favour of a radical reduction to the essential geometric and architectural elements of form.i Playing with space and perspective, Vieira da Silva’s intricately woven compositions possess a strangely disorientating, maze-like quality, as seemingly solid architectural elements melt into air. 

    'I look at the street and at people walking on foot with different appearances advancing at different speeds. I think of the invisible threads which manipulate them… I try and see the machinery which organises them. I think this is in a way what I attempt to paint.'
    —Maria Helena Vieira da Silva 

    Although her post-war work tended to explore the shattered reality of the urban landscape after 1945, in the present work we find the same principles of construction applied to the airy, light-filled fields outside of Paris. Painted in the same year, Aix-en-Provence, now part of New York’s prestigious Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum collection gives a clue as to the locale of Champs de Sainte-Claire

     

    Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Aix-en-Provence, 1958, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © 2021. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

    Beginnings

     

    Travelling widely as a young child, Vieira da Silva came into direct contact with early 20th century expressions of the avant-garde, including the Italian Futurists and the Ballets Russes before settling in Paris in 1928 where she immersed herself in the artistic influences that she found there and established herself as an important and unique figure of French post-war abstraction. Melding elements of Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism into her own, truly unique visual language Vieira da Silva reimagined the depth and surface of picture plane into a fractured field of geometric space structured through the repetition and interaction of simple lines and coloured squares. Rather than anchoring the composition, the solidity and fixity of these elements is radically interrupted by subtle tonal shifts – at once introducing a palpable sense of movement and serene balance. 

     

    Giacomo Balla, Girl Running on the Balcony, 1912, Meseo del Novecento, Milan, © 2021. DeAgostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence © DACS 2021

    Hovering between dream and reality, perception and memory, Champs de Sainte-Claire demonstrates the impact of Cubistic approaches to form and perspective on Vieira da Silva’s pictorial language. Borrowing Cubism’s monochromatic palette and gridded structures, the dizzying perspectival shifts also draw on Cubo-Futurist ideas of simultaneity, collapsing different times, places and points of view together on a single picture plane. More than mere compositional device, this sense of simultaneity also allowed Vieira da Silva to fold childhood memories into present realities, the dazzling blues of the present work recalling her childhood in Lisbon and the elaborately painted azulejos lining the streets. 

    'In Portugal, there are a lot of small tiles, azulejos. The word comes from azure, because they were blue. [..] this technique gives a vibration that I am looking for and allows me to find the rhythm of a painting.' —Maria Helena Vieira da Silva 

    As Waddington-Custot suggested in their press release for their substantial 2019 retrospective, it is certainly possible to read the ‘indistinct perspective’ of so many of Vieira da Silva’s compositions as exposing the double-consciousness of the émigré artist.ii Blending the personal with the art-historical, these beautifully fractured landscapes speak eloquently at once to the symbolic destruction of established art-historical modes lauded by the early 20th century avant-garde, and to the distressing reality of Europe’s destruction during World War II. 

     

    Mondrian and the Grid

    'One would need to examine the painting under a magnifying glass, so intensely does the artist shift from the infinitely small to the infinitely large. How many other paintings are hidden in this one? How many paintings lost during her exile have been preserved within it, and within it how many future works were dreamed of?' —Pierre Watt

    Piet Mondrian, Composition with Lines, 1917, Kroeller-Mueller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands, © 2021. DeAgostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence

    Adopting the Cubist grid, but pushing it into decidedly more abstract territory, Piet Mondrian’s investigations into pure form more closely align to the architectonic construction of Vieira da Silva’s works where her distinctly gridded armatures create a voluminous sense of space within the composition. Structural rather than descriptive, Mondrian’s arrangement of radically reduced horizontal and vertical elements did not have exclusive pictorial function, but also carried mystical implications for the artist as fundamental oppositions whose interactions symbolised a state of universal harmony. This sense of compositional balance and harmony is immediately apparent when standing in front of Vieira da Silva’s Champs de Sainte-Claire, the visible structure of the painting and the tension that she achieves between construction and dissolution generating a deeply immersive experience. 

     

    Windows to the Future

     

    This gridded intersection of horizontal and vertical elements and the immersive qualities of Champs de Sainte-Claire anticipate the artist’s later experiments in stained-glass. Bringing together her interest in light, colour, and structure, in 1966 Vieira da Silva’s was commissioned to create a series of stained-glass windows for l’église Saint-Jacques de Reims, France; a stunning testament to her experimental approach to the representation of simultaneity, the stained glass capturing at once the painted image, and a world beyond. 

     

    Maria Elena Viera da Silva, Stained Glass Window installed in L’église Saint-Jacques de Reims, France © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

    The influence of Vieira da Silva’s work has been subtle but significant, as her prominent inclusion in the recent Elles font l’abstraction at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pomipdou highlights. While her drive towards an aesthetics of immersion anticipates Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored environments and Infinity Rooms, Vieira da Silva’s examination of spatial relationships, the Cubist grid and perspective draws her into a dialogue with the digital designs and spatial experiments of young contemporary artist Avery Singer who, like Vieira da Silva could be described as ‘not seeking in vain to reconstruct what no longer existed but rather to build a new place, a pictorial place […] where loss would become the very stuff of life’.iii  

     

    Exhibition highlights Of Maria Vieira da Silva at Waddington Custot, 2019

     

    Collector’s Digest

     

    •    Vieira da Silva was the major female artist of the École de Paris, widely respected by her peers and exhibited alongside Jean Fautrier and Jean Dubuffet, amongst others.

     

    •    Since 2008 there has been renewed interest in Vieira da silva’s work, as her robust auction record and prominent inclusion in the 2021 Elles font l’abstraction at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pomipdou highlights.

     

    •    Vieira da Silva’s work has been exhibited widely since her first retrospective held at the Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover in 1958. Most recently, Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Paris, Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries in New York all coordinated significant exhibitions celebrating her work and legacy in 2019, reintroducing Vieira da Silva’s work to contemporary audiences.

     

    •    Exhibiting extensively and internationally during her lifetime, Vieira da Silva’s work is now held in the permanent collections of major institutions including Musée National d’art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. 

     

    i Maria Helena Vieira da Silva Obituary, New York Times, 11 March 1992, online  
    ii Waddington Custon, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, online 
    iii Pierre Watt, ‘The Pathway: Four Notes about Vieira da Silva’ in Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (exh. cat.), Waddington Custot, London, 2019, p. 16. 

    • Provenance

      Mr. Lee A. Ault, New York
      Collection of Jorge de Brito, Lisbon
      Galeria Nasoni, Portugal
      Private Collection, Portugal (acquired from the above)
      Gift from the above to the present owner circa 1984

    • Exhibited

      Washington D.C., The Phillips Collection, Vieira da Silva, 12 March - 12 April 1961, no. 14
      New York, Knoedler Galleries, Vieira da Silva, 3 - 28 October 1961, no. 9
      São Paulo, Museu de Arte, Vieira da Silva nas Colecções portuguesas, April 1987, no. 27, p. 67 (illustrated)
      Porto, Casa de Serralves, Vieira da Silva Árpád Szenes nas Colecções Portuguesas, February - April 1989, no. 47, pp. 23, 29, 286 (illustrated, p. 364)
      Madrid, Fundación Juan March, Vieira da Silva, 17 May - 7 July 1991, no. 31, p. 84 (illustrated, p. 78)
      Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Musée d'Art Moderne, Vieira da Silva dans les collections portugaises, 29 September - 8 December 1991, p. 102 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Jacques Lassaigne and Guy Weelen, Vieira da Silva, Barcelona, 1979, no. 265, p. 340 (illustrated, p. 231)
      Maria João Fernandes, "Vieira e Arpad - um itinerário poético," Journal de Letras, Artes e Ideias, Lisbon, 3 January 1989
      Maria João Fernandes, "O universo de Vieira da Silva", Artes & Leilões, no. 10, Lisbon, June - September 1991, p. 34
      Guy Weelen, Jean-François Jaeger, Jean-Luc Daval, Diane Daval Béran and Virginie Duval, Viera da Silva Monographie, Geneva, 1993, p. 307 (illustrated, p. 306)
      Guy Weelen and Jean-François Jaeger, Vieira da Silva Catalogue Raisonné, Geneva, 1994, no. 1546, p. 309 (illustrated)

Property from an Important Portuguese Private Collection

33

Champs de Sainte-Claire

signed and dated ‘Vieira da Silva 58’ lower right
oil on canvas
97 x 130 cm (38 1/4 x 51 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1958.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£400,000 - 600,000 ‡ ♠

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741
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Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021