Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

The Corridor

1950

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 648 x 911 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1953
Reference
N06189

Summary

The Corridor 1950 is a rectangular, horizontally orientated painting by the Portuguese artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva that appears to represent an internal architectural structure. The work depicts a claustrophobic grey interior of a room or corridor with a low ceiling, close walls and a sharp vanishing point, to which the eye is led by multiple conflicting perspectival lines. The surfaces of the space are rendered as if entirely covered in a dizzying mosaic of small geometric tiles, except for four narrow unadorned structural bars that run along the top of the interior walls and toward the vanishing point, and one vertical column which is positioned in the left of the composition. The tiles are square, rectangular and triangular and appear predominantly white, grey and black in colour, with a small number of pale yellowish-grey ones dotted throughout. The painting is inscribed ‘Vieira da Silva | 1950’ at the bottom left.

The work was painted in Paris in 1950 on a roughly cut, thinly primed piece of linen canvas nailed onto a pinewood stretcher. Vieira da Silva initially outlined the overall layout of the composition using a series of thin black painted lines and afterward sketched in paint the large geometric shapes that represent the architecture of the corridor. The artist subsequently modulated the internal structural walls using a technique called scumbling – a process by which painters soften the hard lines in their works by applying an opaque layer of paint against a straight edge using a semi-circular motion and an almost dry paint brush. To create more variety in the thicknesses and length of the lines, Vieira da Silva painted over them in a series of different colours including blue, violet and red – all mixed into a consistent base colour of dark grey. Finally, she painted the small geometric tile shapes in soft light colours, using a thick, opaque application of paint. The opacity of the painted tiles juxtaposed against the thin wash of the modulated bars and walls creates a shimmering effect within the painting.

The work forms part of a series of paintings made by Vieira da Silva after she moved to Paris in 1948. Despite appearing largely monochromatic, The Corridor contains violet, blue, green, yellow, red, black, grey and white – a palette similar to that used by post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). Unlike Cézanne, however, Vieira da Silva mixed her colours with large quantities of white paint, so that from a distance it is difficult to distinguish between the hues. Vieira da Silva’s obsession with perspective was also in part motivated by her interest in Cézanne. Discussing Vieira da Silva’s influences in her early career during the late 1920s and the 1930s, art historian Gisela Rosenthal has observed: ‘It was Cézanne who attracted the young artist most strongly. In his paintings he had attempted to make the structures underlying the visible reality, and found new ways of representing space’ (Rosenthal 1998, p.15). Vieira da Silva also described the importance of exploring multiple different perspectival viewpoints in her works and the use of the plumb line, despite the relatively unfashionable nature of this pursuit during a period where artists such as Zao Wou-Ki and Jean-Paul Riopelle were exploring more gestural and less mathematical forms of abstraction. As Vieira da Silva stated: ‘Perspective captivated me … To succeed in encapsulating a whole space on a small piece of canvas! But that is at odds with the rules of pictorial representation and the laws of a certain age’ (quoted in Rosenthal 1998, p.54).

Other works from the series include Paris 1951 (Tate T00245), while the earlier The Tiled Room 1935 (Tate T14206) is an early example of Vieira da Silva’s interest in colour and perspective in the rendering of interior spaces. The Corridor was first exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, in 1950, but has since then been referred to as The Grey Room by the artist and several art historians including Rosenthal (see Rosenthal 1998, p.49).

In 1961 the writer Léon Kochnitzky described the series that includes The Corridor, emphasising what he perceived as the particularly existential and anguished nature of the work:

Under low vaults with irregular surfaces, tile-pavements and mosaics proliferate, get swept away in the direction of an imitation vanishing-point which is illogical and, one could say, theatrical. The painter is gripped by a strange anguish, which leads her to a more and more intense contemplation of the infinitesimal: subterranean chambers diffuse their own light, grottoes of rock-salt, Geodes with muted scintillations, as though stifled under the weight of impenetrable walls.
(Quoted in Alley 1981, p.747.)

Due to the perceived anxiety of Vieira da Silva’s compositions her work has often been compared to her contemporary, the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti.

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.747, reproduced p.747.
Gisela Rosenthal, Vieira da Silva 1908–1992: The Quest for Unknown Space, Cologne 1998, reproduced p.49.

Judith Wilkinson
May 2016

Display caption

Vieira da Silva was a key figure within the field of expressive abstraction in post-war Paris. However her work always retained a strong basis of reference to the visible world. Many of her paintings depict labyrinthine interior spaces, with complex or multiple lines of perspective. The elaborate mosaic and tiled surfaces recall the domestic architecture of her native Portugal. This picture was first exhibited in 1950 as The Corridor, but later became known as The Grey Room.

Gallery label, July 2012

Catalogue entry

Vieira da Silva born 1908 [- 1992]

N06189 La Chambre grise (The Grey Room) 1950

Inscribed 'Vieira da Silva | 1950' b.l.
Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 35 7/8 (65 x 91)
Purchased from Gimpel Fils (Knapping Fund) 1953
Prov: With Galerie Pierre, Paris (purchased from the artist); with Redfern Gallery, London; R.D.S. May, London, 1952; with Gimpel Fils, London, 1953
Exh: Young Painters - US vs. France, Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, October-November 1950 (13); Vieira da Silva, Redfern Gallery, London, January-February 1952 (13); British and French Contemporaries: a Selection from Mr. R.D.S. May's Collection, Gimpel Fils, London, February-March 1953 (31); Vieira da Silva, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, September-November 1969 (19, repr.); Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, December 1969-February 1970 (15, repr.); Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, February-March 1970 (15); Kunsthalle, Basle, April-May 1970 (15, repr.); Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, June-July 1970 (61, repr.)
Lit: Léon Kochnitzky, 'Marie-Hélène Vieira da Silva' in Quadrum, XII, 1961, pp.53-4, repr. p.54 as 'La Chambre grise'
Repr: Cimaise, 3rd series, No.2, 1955, p.14 as 'Le Corridor'; Dora Vallier, Vieira da Silva (Paris 1971), p.108

Léon Kochnitzky, loc. cit., has written as follows of Vieira da Silva's works of this type, with particular reference to this picture: 'Under low vaults with irregular surfaces, tile-pavements and mosaics proliferate, get swept away in the direction of an imitation vanishing-point which is illogical and, one could say, theatrical. The painter is gripped by a strange anguish, which leads her to a more and more intense contemplation of the infinitesimal: subterranean chambers diffuse their own light, grottoes of rock-salt, Geodes with muted scintillations, as though stifled under the weight of impenetrable walls. The visitor to Nero's Casa Aurea, in Rome, experiences a similar anguish.'

This picture was first exhibited in 1950 as 'The Corridor', but has usually been referred to since then, by the artist and others, as 'The Grey Room'.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.747, reproduced p.747