MIRA SCHENDEL

b. 1919, Zurich
d. 1988, São Paulo

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I would say that the line, often, just stimulates the void. . . . What matters in my work is the void, actively the void.

—Mira Schendel [1]

When the Zurich-born Mira Schendel (born Myrrha Dagmar Dub) arrived in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1949, it was the end point of a decade of migration that began with her flight from Milan in 1939.[2] Schendel was studying Philosophy at the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore when Benito Mussolini’s fascist government announced that non-Italian Jews were no longer eligible to receive high-level education. Though baptized as a Catholic, Schendel was born into a Jewish family and therefore made the decision to leave Italy with the intention of relocating to Bulgaria. She settled, however, in Sarajevo where she met her first husband, Josip Hargesheimer. The two moved to Italy in 1944 before leaving Europe altogether and settling in Brazil, itself a diverse and multicultural nation.[3] These experiences of passage through different languages, religions, and geographies perhaps informed the themes around which Schendel’s mature practice developed.[4] Her work explored the boundary between two worlds, the point where lived, transitory, and fleeting existence transforms into abstraction, language, and permanence. “If I could bring these two realms together,” Schendel once stated, “I would have united the richness of experience with the relative permanence of the symbol.”[5]

 

Though information is scant concerning the specifics of her education during childhood, Schendel did begin taking art courses in the early 1930s.[6] Upon arriving in Brazil, she worked briefly with ceramics before transitioning to painting still-lifes informed by Giorgio Morandi, later creating heavily textured and somber geometric abstractions. In 1953, the artist moved to São Paulo, the city where she would live and work for the rest of her life, and where she met Knut Schendel, a bookstore owner who would become her second husband. After a painting hiatus of several years following the birth of her daughter in 1957, she resumed working in the early 1960s. During this time, Schendel was deeply interested in questions of spirituality and faith within Catholicism while nurturing a bourgeoning engagement with Zen Buddhist ideas circulating among the intellectual milieu of Brazil.[7] Her reflections come to the fore in her explorations of the written word, emphasizing its materiality against the commonly held belief in language’s transparency and clarity.[8] The “Monotipias,” begun in 1964, combine this interest in the graphic mark with the unique qualities of Japanese paper, its delicacy and translucence serving as a useful vehicle for exploring notions of embodiment and ephemerality that would become further developed as the decade progressed.

 

Schendel produced her “Monotipias” by laying Japanese paper on top of a glass plate covered in black ink and talcum powder.[9] As she applied pressure on the paper with her fingernails or other tools, the ink soaked directly into the translucent material at the point of contact, resulting in marks that appear to manifest spontaneously from within. Thin lines and alphabet fragments emerge without a context, treated as a material in the manner of the concrete poetry practiced by her friends and colleagues Heraldo do Campos and Dom Sylvester Houédard.[10] At the same time, however, these graphic marks are the result of a now absent presence, recording the fleeting traces of the body rather than representing it in language or image. Describing her intentions, Schendel once reflected: “My work is an attempt to immortalize the fleeting and to give meaning to the ephemeral. To do this, obviously, I have to freeze the instant itself, in which the experience melts into the symbol—in this case, into the word.”[11]

 

Ephemerality and transience equally come to the fore in her “Droguinhas,” begun in 1965. In these airy sculptures, the delicate Japanese paper is repetitively tied and knotted together, forming a dense physical language impossible to analyze.[12] Guy Brett of Signals Gallery in London, which would host Schendel’s first solo exhibition abroad the following year, described the “Droguinhas” in terms of their potential: “They seem to imply a tremendous force while themselves remaining soft, flexible and transitory—the very first tentative discovery of the void.”[13] The year of the Signals exhibition also saw Schendel’s first major institutional show at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro.

 

In the late 1960s, Schendel continued her study of language’s materiality with her “Objectos gráficos,” which were exhibited at the 1968 Venice Biennale. Suspended in space, this series once again utilized text and graphic marks on Japanese paper, this time sandwiched between two sheets of acrylic. Her use of acrylic added an additional layer of materiality to the letters and fragmented texts encased within, allowing viewers to circulate language as one would a sculpture. As a clear material, however, the acrylic provides additional complexity as its own transparency would indicate immediate access to meaning and language. And yet, the viewers are met with letters that are stubbornly material, unforthcoming in their communicative capacity.[14]

 

Schendel’s ceaseless examination of the graphic mark would continue in numerous series throughout the 1970s, in which she used diverse means—from Letraset to typewritten compositions—to impart substance to language. The “Sarrafos” of 1987 was the artist’s last major completed series, and feature sharp, angular black bars that move into space against a white background. Shadows play across the surfaces of the works, creating a dialogue between diaphanous, insubstantial lines and the black bars that burst into the space of the viewer. 

 

Schendel exhibited widely throughout her career, including in several iterations of the São Paulo Biennial as well as the 1968 and 1978 editions of the Venice Biennale. By the end of her life, Schendel had begun to receive significant critical recognition, which has only increased in the form of several major recent exhibitions. In 2008, Schendel was the subject of a two-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, titled Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, which traveled to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. In 2013, the Tate Modern in London mounted a major retrospective of her work, which was later on view at the Fundação de Serralves, Porto, and the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.

 

Since her death in 1988, the importance of Schendel’s body of work has been cemented in significant group exhibitions, chief among them: Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820–1980, The Hayward Gallery, London (Traveled to: Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Palacio de Velázquez, Madrid); Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, Plaza de Armas, Seville (Traveled to: Centre Pompidou, Paris; Josef-Haubrich Kunsthalle, Cologne; Museum of Modern Art, New York); Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s–70s, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Traveled to: Museum of Modern Art, Miami); Inverted Utopias: The Avant-Garde in Latin America, 1920–1970, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; documenta 12, Kassel: When Lives Become Form, Contemporary Brazilian Art: 1960s to the Present, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; The Other Transatlantic: Kinetic & Op Art in Central & Eastern Europe and Latin America, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw (Traveled to: Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow); Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950–1980, Met Breuer, New York; A Tale of Two Worlds, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (Traveled to: Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires); Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2019.

 

[1] Quote reproduced in Denise Birkhofer, “Eva Hesse and Mira Schendel: Voiding the Body—Embodying the Void,” Woman’s Art Journal 31, no. 2 (2010): 8.

[2] All dates for Schendel’s travels are sourced from Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães’s chronology in Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, ed. Luis Pérez-Oramas, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 169–83.

[3] For information on mid-twentieth century immigration in Brazil, and the Japanese diaspora in particular, see Majella Munro, “Zen as a Transnational Current in Post-War Art: The Case of Mira Schendel,” Tate Papers, no. 23 (Spring 2015). Accessed online July 30, 2020.

[4] Rodrigo Neves, “Mira Schendel: The World as Generosity,” in Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, ed. Luis Pérez-Oramas, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 59. “Nothing in Schendel’s art attempts either to order reality violently or to impose meaning on it, actions that are two sides of the same coin. To the end, this woman—who came from Jewish parentage but survived the Europe of the 1930s and ’40s, was several times forced to change countries and languages, had a difficult family life, and was recognized as an important artist only in her later years—examined the possibilities of our presence in the world, an investigation involving a recognition both of our limitations and of the achievements to which they might lead.” 

[5] Ibid., 60. Neves reproduces an unsigned and undated text by Schendel courtesy of Arquivo Mira Schendel, São Paulo. 

[6] Gutiérrez-Guimarães, chronology in Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, 169.

[7] For information on the artist’s relationship to Catholicism, see Luis Pérez-Oramas, principal essay in Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, ed. Luis Pérez-Oramas, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 25–26. For the presence of Zen philosophy in Schendel’s work, as well as an analysis of its transmission and practice in Brazil, see Munro, “Zen as a Transnational Current in Post-War Art.”

[8] Pérez-Oramas relates the “Monotipias” to questions of faith and spirituality: “The unfathomably immense expanse of the paper on which she inscribed her enormous production of Monotipias (Monotypes)—this was the battlefield on which her spiritual ideas materialized, as fragments, floating words, terse symbols, hermetic paraphrases, nominal sentences. Schendel was not afraid of religious struggle, a struggle of the Church, with the Church, against the Church that she knew all too well.” See Pérez-Oramas, Tangled Alphabets, 26.

[9] Ibid., 26–27.

[10] Ibid., 38. Pérez-Oramas notes Schendel’s friendship with Houédard in the late 1960s.

[11] Quoted in Neves, “Mira Schendel: The World as Generosity,” 60.

[12] Pérez-Oramas, Tangled Alphabets, 32. “The idea that language is a transparent, utterly reliable tool of analysis, let alone psychoanalysis, depends on innocent optimism. The Droguinhas, to the contrary, suggest that some knots can never be untied, that there is and always will be a definitive, primordial confusion impossible to reduce to transparency.”

[13] Guy Brett, Kinetic Art (London: Studio Vista, 1968) 46.

[14] Pérez-Oramas, Tangled Alphabets, 35.

 

 

 

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