Maria Antónia Leite Siza, 50 Anos Depois at Serralves

In the introductory note to the exhibition Maria Antónia Leite Siza, 50 Anos Depois[1], in the atrium right before the Serralves Library, we see Álvaro Siza Vieira’s video testimony about the artist (1940-1973) and her practice, mentioning facts and memories narrated not only by the architect, but by the man who disseminates and protects the artistic legacy of the one he loved.

The anthological exhibition, based on one hundred drawings donated by Álvaro Siza Vieira to the Serralves Foundation – in addition to paintings, engravings, embroidery, letters and photographs – broadens, according to the curator António Choupinha, the vision of the artist, a more eclectic perspective of what we have known until now[2]. To the more mature phase of her practice, revealed in the first and only exhibition held during the artist’s lifetime, at Cooperativa Árvore in 1970[3], are added perspectives from her youth, with works from the time when she was a student at the Faculty of the Fine Arts of Porto.

The curators decided to reveal a decade of the artist’s creation, between 1960 and 1973, following an order that is not chronological but thematic. In the first room of the exhibition, we see different experiments: the delicacy of embroidery on linen, the raw relief and intensity of small linocut prints, the fine and compulsive lines of Chinese ink drawings. Historical and documental, the exhibition shows the artist’s extensive work, experimenting with materials and supports, illustrative of her imagination and creative realm, as well as her intimacy and thoughts through family and travel photographs, testimonies of friends, letters and postcards that give her voice and presence. A constant presence in the different exhibition nuclei, with words from excerpts of letters from Tótó (as she was affectionately called). As they are transcribed on the walls, we read them, as if she were speaking in our ear: ‘I have just finished a drawing that left me dumbfounded / I walk this path feeling as if it were dawn with the wolves howling and the sun about to rise. Organised into eight thematic nuclei, we see the drawings and intimacy with which she approached portraits; the importance she attached to female multiplication; the question of the unfolding of entities, their metamorphosis between the inanimate and the oneiric. A show which, according to the curator, has two levels: one in which we dream, looking up; and another more domestic, as if we were beside her drawing (… ), admiring the drawings and their graphic quality.

Rarely dated and signed, the drawings donated to the Serralves Foundation, selected by Philipe Vergon, represent Tótó’s artistic evolution: the works in pen, the more expressionist watercolours. Charcoal, ballpoint, graphite, coloured pencil, Indian ink and watercolour drawings, whose sure, rapid and spontaneous strokes, without any prior studies and the result of strong, creative impulses, reveal perfectly controlled compositions.

I might not draw for weeks or months. On an unscheduled day, the desire to draw would arise (…) One after the other, the images moved, the muscles on the bones furrowed the bodies, the emotions aroused in the faces and gestures: ten, twenty, thirty, depending on the day, or more often at night, throughout my evening.[4]

As if she had practised during the long breaks, Maria Antónia shows drawings that occupy the page with absolute confidence. There is no imbalance on the sheet and that is a quality that few have, that Picasso had, for example. That drawing should have been done right where it really was.[5]

The refusal of geometric abstraction and the favouring of the figurative, escaping the limits of his time, follow us throughout the exhibition, in a vast thematic lexicon. Caricatures, charcoal drawings, portraits of friends and family members, we remain attentive to the expressiveness of Laura Soutinho’s portrait, with a serious face and intense gaze, as well as the humorous sequence of portraits of Álvaro Siza, sublimating him until we reach the essence of the architect: a nose with glasses, a hand that draws and the other holding a cigarette. From her college days, her most famous portrait during that period is shown, lent to Serralves by the Gulbenkian Foundation, the oil on apatite entitled Modelo, 1960, whose intensity attributed to the human figure surprises, as if it existed beyond the canvas.

With a fabulist, but also diaristic tendency, we are carried away by the hand that hardly lifted itself from the paper, by its energetic, ascending and zigzagging strokes on floating, lean and disquieting figures, whose bodies are contorted. In the thematic set Leito e Onírico, the bed is the drawing’s protagonist, as a space of shelter and communal refuge, or a marital bed with a sensual content; and also as a solitary bed, a space of rest and introspection for a single person. Next to this we find the sequence Desdobramento e Metamorfose, revealing single and multiple entities, some based on emotional experiences from childhood, which the adult artist transfers to her work. For example, the drawing where three figures connected by the same base will have had as a source of inspiration the three Siamese pine trees in the garden of the palace on Avenida da Boavista where she was born. According to the curator, they will have fed the notion of anthropomorphic unfolding in her work. Multiplications and transfigurations, mostly feminine, are vital in the artist’s work, as revealed in the suffragette drawing of the 1962 Students’ Day, in which there is not a single man in the revolutionary undertaking; or the personal and affective reinterpretation, equally feminine, of the Wedding at Cana and Kiss of Judas. In constant evolution, Maria Antónia’s work, which follows the culture of the 60s, sought an idea of the future, fed by travels – France, Italy, Morocco, England; by the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin or the cinema of Visconti, Godard, Bergman and Francisco Rosi. In another part of the exhibition, we see the designs embroidered by Tótó: the monogrammed centrepiece for Laura Soutinho and the monogram for Cecília and Rogério Cavaca’s bedspread, where R and C intertwine to form a heart. In both works, made around 1968, only the colour red is privileged – as in all her textile production -, the same sanguine tone that we see in the grotesque imagery of the final phase of the artist’s career. The black, light and elegant stroke is exchanged for the thicker, more colourful, violent and expressive line in dense and shapeless watercolour beings, figures haunted by a kind of evil that seems to come from within them, as if in her own body the artist sensed an acute awareness of near death[6] . Before these expressive, violent and dramatic bodies, whose faces and eyes seem to stare at us, even when positioned in profile, we listen to the jazz chords of Dave Brubeck and dive into an introspection and dream, while Maria Antónia confides in us, in an excerpt from 1967 transcribed on the wall: I bought a Brubeck record that is too good… it’s called Time Out and it takes me to the clouds.

The exhibition, Maria Antónia Leite Siza, 50 Anos Depois is in the Museum Library at Serralves until March 2023.



[1] An exhibition organised by the Serralves Foundation, curated by the architect António Choupina, coordinated by Sónia Oliveira and sponsored by Sónia and António Coutinhas, is on show at the Serralves Library from September 8, 2022, to March 2023.

[2] Quote from António Choupina’s speech during the exhibition’s presentation to the press on September 7, 2022.

[3] The exhibition presented posthumous interactions in Porto (2002); Madrid (2005); Zagreb (2016); Berlin and Lisbon (2019), at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

[4] SIZA VIEIRA, Álvaro – “50 Anos Depois” in Maria Antónia Leite Siza: 50 Years Later. Porto: Serralves Foundation, 2022, p. 9.

[5] Quote from Siza Vieira’s speech during the presentation of the exhibition to the press on 7 September 2022.

[6] ALMEIDA, Bernardo Pinto de – “Sombras” in Maria Antónia Siza 1940-1973: desenhos. Porto: Árvore, Asa: 2002, p.186.

Mafalda Teixeira, Master’s Degree in History of Art, Heritage and Visual Culture from the Faculty of Letters of the University of Porto. She has an internship and worked in the Temporary Exhibitions department of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. During the master’s degree, she did a curricular internship in production at the Municipal Gallery of Oporto. Currently, she is devoted to research in the History of Modern and Contemporary Art, and publishes scientific articles.

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