Maria Helena Vieira da Silva cited in: Guy Weelen and Jean-François Jaeger, Vieira da Silva, Geneva 1993, p. 91.
Composed during the Second World War in 1944, L’Incendie II ou le Feu (The Burning II or The Fire) constitutes one of the most important paintings from Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s acclaimed oeuvre. Of great personal significance, the painting remained in the artist's collection until the early 1990s, when she gifted the work to one of her closest friends. L’Incendie II ou le Feu was executed during the Portuguese artist’s exile in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she fled in 1940 with her Jewish husband – the painter Árpád Szenes – to escape Nazi persecution, returning to Paris only in 1947. During this period, Vieira da Silva produced just twenty-one canvases, three of which were executed in 1944. Dark and introspective, these paintings became visual diaries through which the artist could reflect upon the war that was ravaging Europe, as much as her own turbulent state of mind.
Charged with a vital sense of urgency, the present painting depicts a simultaneously iridescent and disquieting scene in which countless figures and houses morph into flickering flames. Hovering between the realms of figuration and abstraction, L’Incendie II ou le Feu at once calls to mind the apocalyptic visions of Hieronymus Bosch, the spiritual hallucinations of El Greco, and the gestural intensity of Jackson Pollock. The world ablaze in a rich palette of golden yellow, amber, umber, burnt orange, gas blue, searing white and charcoal black, L’Incendie II ou le Feu powerfully offers a tormented vision of war at a time of global suffering, anguish and atrocity. Claustrophobic in its dense rendering of pictorial space, the present work is deeply influenced by the European Cubists and Futurists' pioneering treatment of depth and perspective. The result is a world marred and fractured by the ravages of conflict and warfare. In the words of curator Gisela Rosenthal, “In these disaster pictures, [Vieira da Silva] 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” (Gisela Rosenthal, Vieira da Silva, 1908-1992: The Quest for Unknown Space, Cologne 2005, p. 48).
Born in Lisbon in 1908, Vieira da Silva was only nineteen years old when she decided to go to Paris to pursue her passion for painting. In Paris she found the excitement she was after; art seemed to be in constant evolution and development, with new movements and –isms being created almost simultaneously. She discovered Picasso’s and Cezanne’s Cubism, where reality was augmented and rendered more palpable by introducing different views into the same picture plane. A study trip to Italy, where she saw the frescoes by the masters of the Trecento and Quattrocento, allowed her to fully understand the principles she would go on to shatter herself. From then onwards the artist developed her own visual language, where architectural landscapes teeming with energy perfectly encapsulated the Zeitgeist of the new century in what was, at the time, the artistic capital of the world. Recognised as one of the most important war-time and post-war painters of the Twentieth Century, Vieira da Silva’s works are today held in important collections throughout the world, including the Tate, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
In L’Incendie II ou le Feu, the picture plane seems to fracture and crack, presenting a composition that is as compelling as it is disorienting. At the very centre of the fiery tumult, a dazzling white figure seems to radiate an ethereal light, as if in promise of new life emerging from the depths of destruction. A powerful emblem of hope for the future, Vieira da Silva in fact reworked this figure slightly following the end of the war and her return to Paris, symbolically brightening and intensifying its glow. Meticulously rendered, the artist dexterously allows the viewer a glimpse into her creative process, with each brushstroke eloquently articulating a helmeted soldier, a sweeping tendril, a burning flame. As Vieira da Silva would explain: "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" (Maria Helena Vieira da Silva cited in: Guy Weelen and Jean-François Jaeger, Vieira da Silva, Geneva 1993, p. 91). Simultaneously melding elements of Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism into a unique pictorial syntax, whilst poignantly contending with the horror and brutality of war, L’Incendie II ou le Feu is a potent work from the apex of Vieira da Silva’s pioneering oeuvre.
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