Mira Schendel: Identity and Being (Tate Modern, London)

How do we live in this world? How we re-invent our identities in new contexts  from old traces, rushed scraps of memories and journeys? How can we make sense of  a changing world oscillating between faith and reason, uncertainty and modernity? These existential questions inspire the work of Brazilian artist Mira Schendel (1919-1988), exhibiting at Tate Modern.

The exhibition traces her oeuvre back from 1950s to her last complete series in 1987. Born Myrra Dagmar Dub in Zurich, Schendel, her life crosses the main events of the Twentieth Century, reflecting the converging threads of religion, nationalities, beliefs and philosophical questions. She was brought up in the intersection of faiths: the jewish heritage of her parents and the strict Catholicism of Italy. In 1938 she was forced to end her studies of Philosophy at the University of Milan in the process of stigmatisation of Jewish people in the pro-nazi Italy of the time. From there she fled through Switzerland, Austria and on to the old Yugoslavia, to emigrate finally to Brazil in 1949.

This dislocation has a profound impact in her work. She started painting in Brazil, as an existential necessity, she said:

“Life was very hard, there was no money for paints, but I used to buy cheap materials and paint like crazy…It was a matter of life or death to me.”

Going throughout the rooms it is possible to enter in the world of what is to be Mira Schendel: a female artist, an emigre, a philosopher, a citizen and an intellectual, is explored throughout the years. She taught herself to paint, getting inspired by the work of diverse artists such as Giorgio Morandi, Giorgio de Chirico and Paul Klee. From early still-lifes to more abstract way of painting, one can see an ongoing question about the nature of art, the role of aesthetics, the influence of language, and at the same time, the urgent concerns of daily life.

Through her work she manages to connect all these identities and concerns. For instance, she worked as a graphic designer and she created some colourful greeting cards, as a source of income. However, the cards are also explorations of her love affair with abstractionism and she worked on them as “series” thus establishing this a mode of working.

mira schendel-2

This way of integrating the different aspects of your life is really appealing to me. In fact, this blog is a way of reflecting on what I see, what I feel and what I do, and talking about exhibitions connect my drawings (as registers of my initial reaction to the work) with my writing (a more informed approach to the artist’s life and oeuvre).

For instance, I was impressed by the use of black and white in canvas of defined structure and materiality. I’m not a great user of black myself, but just playing with crayons it’s possible to appreciate the power of this colour. Black is beautiful, powerful, defining!

mira schendel-1

Mira Schendel also challenge the materiality of painting, using different medium, such as rice paper, or pushing the boundaries of the traditional two dimensions by adding volume, body and shape to her work. I suddenly felt the urgent need of touching the canvas, but as it’s forbidden, I decided to create my own tactile interpretation.

mira schendel

In this drawing I tried to convey the texture of the painting, by piercing the paper (like you are taught in kinder-garden), and I created different spots, bold and thin to convey that sensation of texture and 3D.

By the 1960s Mira started to include ‘text’ in her paintings. As formerly remarked by Magritte in “This is not a pipe”, the relationship between text and image is a complex one. In her paintings, the letters are not explanations of what one can see… they are part of the iconography of the whole painting. The letters bold in black are essential elements that balance the visual impact of the painting.

Mira would develop this concern throughout her work taking it to beautifully extremes…She wondered:
“What is language… how does a letter, a line, or a word, become meaningful.”
(Series Toquinhos)

This made me think in my own ongoing series of iCuts. For almost a year or more, I have been cutting bits of the newspaper trying to create a six lines message, in the form of the iChing.

My iCuts are both text and message, oracle and popular culture. I revel in the possibility of finding meanings in scraps and fragments, and somehow to hear what I already know…

photo 1

Coming back to the exhibition, Schendel’s endless experimentation is really inspiring. She used the language of graphic design to create her “Bombs” by employing black, white and red pigments.

“In them, ink and pastel are applied to wet paper, which causes the forms to become diffuse in a manner that emulates Chinese calligraphic painting.” (In exhibition leaflet by Tanya Barson, Tate Modern, Mira Schendel)

mira schendel-3

Later in 1964, she used semi-transparent rice paper for drawing her monotypes. Letters that conform a landscape, a vision. She worked so quickly that she managed to complete almost 2000 of those. In those, she explored the concepts of Nothing and Being, following questions from phenomenology (how do we perceive and are in the world). The curator Tanya Barson explains:

“The monotypes embody Schendel’s exploration of concepts of being and nothingness, the void, and philosophical ideas drawn from phenomenology – how we exist in the world (umwelt or environment), with the world (mitwelt or social world) and within ourselves (eigenwelt or innerworld)- “

So how can we relate as viewers with these questions?

What I found fascinating of this type of concerns is to find how art can actually touches on the superficial but also on the profound. Here, the artist challenges the written word transforming letters into images, so where is the line between an image or a word? Moreover, what viewers would choose to see: would one make sense of what is written? or rather the fonts and types are taken as shapes peppering and building an image? Likewise, one may wonder whether things because they are named, thus existing, or they exist independently of us knowing them?

Moreover, the artist advances her own answers by pushing the paper as a material, organic, moving and alive. The poetry of the delicate tissues hanging up a line in the room take you to a Japanese garden of stepping stones where the wind plays with the leaves of a bambooserie and the spirits are as certain as the fresh air.

mira schendel

Once again, the spectator can actually stop trying to understand with her mind and instead engage her body. This shift in the way we perceive things through our body and not only through our mind is explored by post-modern philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty, which represents a pivotal point for contemporary artists. But here it is, simple yet profound, spiritual and playful. Schendel work is actually completed by the person, and I am careful in not say the viewer, because of the before mentioned consideration of the body in perceiving and understanding.

As an artist and educator, my question is how to make my work more interactive, in the sense of “work in movement” or “open work” in which there is a dialogue, a completion or a fulfilling of the whole work? Well, I guess this is an open question of an unexplored yet exciting path for art. But perhaps the best of all in this post today is how this artist  provokes meaningful questions. Questions that perhaps belong to the way in which women artist relate with our world. These are questions and concerns that I have not found in the traditional mainstream art in the UK, and only by meeting artists such as Schendel, Choucair and Ellen Gallagher, I start considering as a woman in the world, with the world and within myself.

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