Maria Keil and the Portuguese modernism

Modern & contemporary art of Maria Keil

Exposição “Maria Keil, itinerários artísticos”, was the text on the poster in front of Igreja da Misericórdia de Silves during our trip through the south of Portugal two years ago. I can’t speak Portuguese, but I did understand the parts of exposition and art… So I wanted to go in. And I’m glad I did that because I got introduced to the work of one of the biggest and versatile modern & contemporary artists of Portugal: Maria Keil (Silves, 1914 – Lisbon, 2012).

Modernist street art in Lisbon

Ever been to Lisbon and took the underground? In that case, you must have noticed the colorful azulejos on the walls. Keil produced the tile works for 19 of the first generation stations in the 1950s. Stations that were designed by her husband, the architect Francisco Keil do Amaral. When it comes to design, they were the dream team during the modernist art period of Portugal. 

Maria Keil Avenida Infante Santo Lisbon Metro

Tile work at the metro station Avenida Infante Santo in Lisbon. © Salt of Portugal

The azulejos (glazed painted tiles) were introduced into Portugal by King Manual I in the 15th century who spotted them in Sevilla. The development of the tiles stagnated in the 19th century. It was Keil’s work for the Lisbon metro that played an instrumental role in ensuring that the azulejos were recognized as a form of artistic expression during the Portuguese architectural renewal between 1950 and 1960.

Maria Keil Metro Intendente Lisboa

Keil’s work at the metro station Intendente in Lisbon is considered to be one of the biggest gems of contemporary azulejos art. © Manuel V Botelho

Keil became the main driving force in the research of new visual expressions in the traditional art form, but also its connection to architecture and the functionality of the sites they were used. Nowadays her tile works inspire contemporary artists, like the upcoming South African fashion designers Keith Henning & Jody Paulsen who used Keil’s motifs in their SS 16 collection.

Maria Keil Silves

Exposição “Maria Keil, itinerários artísticos” at the Igreja da Misericórdia de Silves © Dias dos Reis

Art for everybody

Although Keil is best known for her azulejos, the exhibition I visited in Silves showed that her career spanned more than painting glazed tiles. Keil studied at the Fine Arts School of Lisbon and always sought innovative ways to reject the system of the so-called high arts and low arts. Crossing different disciplines, she worked on illustrations, graphic designs, advertisements, drawings, paintings, furniture and decorations, wall tapestries, costume designs and stage designs. Art should be there for everybody and because of this open-mindedness, she played a major role in key moments that shaped the cultural life of Portugal.

Astrologer costume design for the legend of the almond blossom ballet

Maria Keil’s Astrologer costume design for the Legend of the Almond Blossom ballet, by the Ballet Company Verde-Gaio (1940)

Pompadour Advertisement Maria Keil

Maria Keil’s advertisement to Pompadour girdles, printed in Panoramo magazine in 1941

Self portrait Maria Keil 1940

Self portrait in neo-realism style (1940)

Maria Keil graphite on paper

Faço 80, sim mas não fiz de propósio / I’m turning 80, yes but not on purpose (1994)

Drawing Maria Keil

Pen and watercolor drawing on paper called (from left to right) 2 Fat Old Hugmel Women/ We are Friends / Some Melos Out for a Stroll / Best Not to Look. It’s Love / YouCan See What’s Coming (2004)

Maria Keil book

I went back to the exhibition in Silves to buy this book Maria Keil – De propósito, obra artística. Unfortunately the book is written in Portuguese (expect are translated into English), but nevertheless an amazing book with incredible pictures.