The woman in black: Mira Schendel is finally bursting on to the British art scene

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Holly Williams on the colourful legacy of one of Brazil's most celebrated - and prolific - artists

Despite being a huge figure in South America, Brazilian artist Mira Schendel is not so well known in the UK. Part of the booming Brazilian Modernist art scene of the Fifties and Sixties – and yet always an outsider – she’s a contradictory, complicated woman, whose work is finally getting a major retrospective at the Tate Modern this autumn.

Mira (who always went simply by her first name) moved to São Paulo in 1953 – after fleeing Italy during the fascist regime – and to this day remains an important figure in the city. Travelling to São Paulo to find out more about her life and art, everyone I talk to within its chic, thriving art scene knows her work; every collector’s house you visit has a Mira or two on the wall – one of her delicate rectangle rice-paper works perhaps, or a hanging Perspex disc, scattered with letters. And those that remember her – she died in 1988 – have vivid memories of this prickly but passionate figure; Mira in many ways fits our idea of the eccentric, tortured artist. São Paulo-based art collector – and big fan – Paulo Kuczynski remembers: “She chain-smoked. She smelt like an ashtray. She always wore black, when people didn’t wear black. And she would totally focus on whoever she was talking to”.

Born in Zurich in 1919, Mira grew up in Italy – Milan and Rome – with her mother, who raised her alone. She had a strongly Catholic education, but with Jewish heritage, she later faced persecution under Mussolini. Mira was thrown out of university in Milan where she was studying philosophy, and fled Italy in 1941, a refugee travelling through the Alps on foot. She was aided and abetted by a kindly French Catholic Priest – who, her daughter Ada tells me when we meet in a restaurant in São Paulo, was actually in love with her (“Mira had a lot of priest lovers!” she laughs). Her flight took her through Switzerland and Austria, and finally to Yugoslavia, where she married a Croatian man named Josep Hargesheimer. In 1949, they emigrated to Porto Alegre in Brazil. And in 1953, Mira separated from her husband and moved to São Paulo, where she met and later married bookseller Knut Schendel, a German émigré.

“She’s a myth in São Paulo; she’s an artist’s artist,” says Rodrigo Moura, who should know. A former art critic, he’s now director at the Inhotim Institute near Belo Horizonte, where we meet among the art pavilions that nestle in lush tropical botanical gardens. In Brazil, Mira is “canonical”, he insists.

An untitled work from the 1960s. Mira was incredibly prolific, producing up to 4,000 works, right up to her death An untitled work from the 1960s. Mira was incredibly prolific, producing up to 4,000 works, right up to her death
Tanya Barson, curator of the Tate show, of course agrees, calling Mira “one of the most important artists of the 20th century.” But in the rest of the world, we’re less familiar with her – this will be the first ever international retrospective, and the first full-scale solo show in 15 years (although Moma paired her with León Ferrari for a dual exhibition, Tangled Alphabets, in 2009). It will not only introduce a potentially new artist to the British public, but also contribute to an understanding of Brazilian art, as part of the Tate’s commitment to looking beyond Europe and America. It’s a project in partnership with Pinacoteca do Estado gallery, a pretty, rough, red-bricked building in downtown São Paulo, where I see many of her fragile works in their basement archive. These will return next year, when the gallery also hosts the exhibition.

Thanks to  the forthcoming World Cup and Olympics, there is a spotlight on Brazil at the moment – and its arts scenes are coming into international focus too. But it’s not the first time the country has stepped on to the world stage; there were the Concrete and then Neo-Concrete art movements of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the Fifties and Sixties, while later the Tropicália movement prompted great international interest in Brazil’s cultural output, during the time of the dictatorship (1964 to 1985).

Such movements were themselves responding to the increasing international exchange of art and ideas – but most pertinent to Mira’s story is that, thanks to the Second World War, Brazil saw a great influx of European intellectual and cultural émigrés. “Incredible people came here and found possibilities in being an artist and being Brazilian,” claims Barson. “Modernism develops in its own way – it’s more optimistic.”

And, she adds, a significant number were women: “It is a macho culture, but somehow there is a chance for women to take the lead”. She cites the architect Lina Bo Bardi (originally from Italy), artist Tomie Ohtake (from Japan), photographer Claudia Andujar (Swiss) – as well as the Brazil-born artists Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape – as examples.

Given her rich association with the country, it would be nice and neat to claim Mira found her spiritual, artistic home in Brazil, but that would be an oversimplification. “It wasn’t a choice actually, it was the only place possible,” says Ada over lunch in the chi-chi district of Jardim Paulista, with her son Max. Ada now looks after her mother’s estate, and lives in São Paulo herself – although the suburban house she grew up in with Mira is long gone. “She hoped when she arrived here that she could find a place for her, but it’s not something you can adopt.”

In 1953, São Paulo was experiencing a financial and cultural boom; but Mira wasn’t interested in just hanging out with the emerging circles of visual artists. Instead, her few and favoured friends included theoretical physicist Mário Schenberg, philosopher Vilém Flusser, psychoanalyst, poet and critic Theon Spanudis and Concrete poet Haroldo de Campos. “She was not a very social person – she never was. She had just a few contacts with very specific persons, but very intense, all the time – all-night-long conversations,” explains Ada. Rather than just talk art and art theory, Mira was interested in science, in philosophy, in religion; in considering the very essence of life, of being and nothingness. She was a deeply intellectual woman.

Mira is perhaps best known for her use of language and letters, often in an abstract aesthetic rather than a readable, meaning-making way Mira is perhaps best known for her use of language and letters, often in an abstract aesthetic rather than a readable, meaning-making way
But she was also – perhaps surprisingly – a very domestic one. She made her work in her kitchen, and stored it in her living room. “Her work is manageable, domestic in scale,” suggests Barson (which has had the knock-on effect of making it appealing to collectors; much of the exhibition is on loan from individuals rather than institutions). Ada recalls Mira working at the kitchen table, covered with an ordinary, plastic, floral patterned tablecloth. She was also meticulous in her laundry and cleaning: “She can wash and iron clothes perfectly. All her underwear: white and perfect. She was very delicate in these things,” recalls Ada. Such perfectionist domesticity was somehow the flipside to her intense artistic creation.

For everything with Mira was extreme. When she was working, she would work until dawn, night after night, completely absorbed. She would produce these huge series of thematically related pieces of art, working almost obsessively in her chosen mode of construction – be that painting, sculpture, printing, or writing. And then she would stop – and maybe not make any more art for weeks, or months. Ada speaks of this as Mira’s “plurality”: although she had a singular vision, when she got too far into an artistic subject or style, she would get bored and switch it up. Ada herself switches to Portuguese, so she can talk in full-flow; Max translates, at some speed: “Mira’s very rigorous; when she chooses something, she focuses on it, she’s very precise… [but] when things get too specific it gets really boring; Mira changes to house cleaning or something else.” Ada says, with a chuckle, “Mira works [for] six months, day and night – and then she sleeps six months. Or she cleans up the house, or she goes to travel, or she cleans me up obsessively…”

Ada and Max both recall her as a difficult, if much-loved, character. Mira’s own mother was probably, Ada claims, schizophrenic, and Mira inherited this extreme fluctuation of emotional states. “Mira never overcame her life, her mother, her pain in life,” says Ada, getting emotional herself. “Never. All her life was painful. The relationships – with me and the lovers and the friends – it was ever difficult. And she doesn’t believe in a happy life, full of joy. That’s like a Barbie doll: it’s fake.”

Mira tried to commit suicide after giving birth to Ada; and the way Ada relates it, she was sometimes neglected as a child, so wrapped up was Mira in her art. Although their relationship improved as Ada grew older, there were always periods of turbulence and periods of intense closeness. But Ada knows that Mira recognised her extreme behaviour: “She felt really guilty about it, she was conscious she was doing it”. There was a sense of history repeating: for Mira remembered her own difficult relationship with her mother.

Where did Mira’s intense feeling of emotional dislocation come from? Both Barson and Ada stress Mira’s outsider status, how she was never settled geographically, artistically, even linguistically. Mira, and her art, were always deeply concerned with notions of territory and of home, of identity and displacement. “She suffered all her life with this,” says Ada, adding that although Mira spoke German, Italian and Portuguese, “she didn’t speak any language without an accent. She was a misplaced person, really.” She used different languages for different parts of her life – Portuguese for the day-to-day, German for philosophising, reverting to Italian for the most basic building blocks of language such as counting, or when she got particularly emotional; all three feature in her art. Perhaps it should be no surprise that her work is so concerned with language – its power and meaning, but also its disintegration and breakdown.

A selection from Schendel's series 'Homage to God' A selection from Schendel's series 'Homage to God'
Mira was displaced in terms of her religion, too. Jewish enough to be chased from her home, raised Catholic, but later intellectually wrestling and tussling with that, while Eastern religion and philosophy had a large influence on her. For much of her life, she would make no decisions without consulting the I Ching (an ancient Chinese form of divination).

With a retrospective of any artist, deciding what to leave in and what to leave out is a tricky business. For this exhibition, it has proved particularly challenging: Mira was incredibly prolific, producing up to 4,000 works, right up to her death. So the Tate Modern’s big autumn exhibition really is just literally big: over 250 of Mira’s works, across a whopping 14 rooms. And still, Barson has had a hard time choosing what to omit; as we visit posh private collections and innumerable São Paulo galleries, she sighs over old favourites and new discoveries there just won’t be room for.

Mira concentrated furiously on thematically or stylistically linked groups of work, and so rather than try to capture every element of this evolving artist’s oeuvre, Barson’s approach at the Tate will be to select several different series, and then show 10 or 20 related works from within them. “We choose things that are emblematic of different aspects of her career,” explains Barson.

Mira is perhaps best known for her use of language and letters, often in an abstract aesthetic rather than a readable, meaning-making way; characters swirl into spirals or scatter hectically. Her work has also been seen in relation to the geometric abstraction of Brazilian Modernism from the Fifties and Sixties. But while it may be abstract and minimal, right down to investigating basic artistic forms (the line, the dot, the square), Mira’s work is also always somehow subjective, personal, even tactile. Drawings exhibit the slight wobble of the handmade; paintings have thickly textured surfaces; sculptures are made by knotting together rice paper to form softly knobbly nets. This very visible human hand in her work places it in contrast to the pure, rigid precision of the Concrete artists who formed an identifiable, and better-known, style in the post-war Brazilian art world. Mira rarely fitted in neatly with any kind of manifesto or group.

“She’s on the periphery; you can’t call it Concrete art,” says Barson. “[Mira] was interested in geometric abstraction, but the abstraction in her work is a different kind. She is offering an alternate paradigm; she establishes an alternative line, to do with being and ontology, through a minimal, precarious gesture – a kind of softness… A slight gesture can be powerful.”

The exhibition will include Mira’s monotypes, a vast series of over 2,000 works made in the 1960s, on small rectangles of translucent Japanese rice paper, using her own unique printing/drawing process (oil spread on glass, then covered with talcum powder on to which the rice paper was lightly pressed; she would then mark the paper so the tint came through – a highly personal process, Mira even used her fingernails to make the marks). These delicate works were described by Mira as an “attempt to immortalise the fleeting and to give meaning to the ephemeral”. Her later Graphic Objects series (from 1967 and 1968) are larger, busier pieces, also using layers of rice paper, with lettering and poetry spattered across them; hung in a transparent acrylic laminate they can be viewed from either side, the text seen in reverse becoming “anti-text”. As she wrote in 1977, the Graphic Objects were “an attempt to bring about drawing through transparency – in other words, to avoid back and front. There was a… philosophical problem behind all that.”

Then there are her notebooks, which use Letraset transfer letters – she made over 250, mostly just in 1971; 25 will be exhibited at the Tate. But Mira’s work was rarely purely abstract; she was always powerfully interested in philosophy and religion. A centrepoint of the show is a series of works entitled Homage to God – Father of the West (1975), which uses spray paint and quotations in various languages to convey a crisis of faith. This work was an artistic conclusion to what Ada calls Mira’s “fight with religion”.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that this tempestuous woman is considered “a myth” within modern Brazilian art. Not only does her work tackle the myths and mythic structures humans create and surround themselves with – identity, language, religion – but her own life is extreme, contradictory, restless. Mira may never have truly found herself, but this new show should introduce a new British audience to her – or her search, at least. As Ada suggests: “The origins of art [are] great lives. Art history isn’t something you can throw away, but just theory – it’s nothing. There has to be something behind it: life is more interesting than the art.”

Mira Schendel is at Tate Modern, London SE1, 25 September to 19 January 2014

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