Mira Schendel

Tate Modern, London

The most striking thing about Alain Badiou’s book The Century (2007) is that the art form he uses to investigate the twentieth century is poetry – in particular, the work of Osip Mandelstam, Paul Celan and Fernando Pessoa. The philosophy of language was probably the philosophy of the century, from Wittgenstein in the Analytic tradition to Derrida in the Continental, and became so ubiquitous that Heidegger’s metaphor of language as the ‘House of Being’ already seems like a cliché. Language also entered visual art in the twentieth century, informed by the strategies employed by pre-1914 and later modernist artists to elide the distinction between the textual and the visual – it is still here, in the shape of what has become known as language or text-based art – and Mira Schendel’s oeuvre is emblematic of that development.

Schendel (1919-88) is regarded as one of Brazil’s most significant and influential artists. Born in Switzerland to parents of Jewish heritage, she became a political exile after she was stripped of her Italian nationality in 1938 while studying philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan. She spent the Second World War in Zagreb, and afterwards emigrated to Brazil, settling in the city of São Paulo in 1953, where she lived until her death. She began to make work as a painter and returned to painting in later life, but after 1964 Schendel devoted herself to language-infused works on paper (often semi-transparent rice paper hung in space between Plexiglass sheets), multiple book objects, and works made by typewriter. This major exhibition at Tate Modern was the first ever international retrospective of her work, surveying her career from the 1950s to her last complete series in 1987, and displayed 279 works across 14 rooms.

It was an impressive exhibition, but there seemed to be two Mira Schendels on show with two different aesthetics: one concerned with form, colour and geometric abstraction (the paintings), the other an early Conceptualist producing works rendered in minimal monochrome (the ‘formless’ monotypes and language-based works). Schendel was well read in phenomenology and Zen Buddhism, but she had two major ‘contradictory’ mentors – the nineteenth-century theologian John Henry Newman and Ludwig Wittgenstein – and to my mind they are representative of the different aesthetics. Her interest in language produced far more interesting work than her interest in Catholicism, and it is her early-Conceptual textbased work on which her reputation will stand.

It’s tempting to read this work from a Derridean perspective, but Schendel saw herself as ‘activating the void,’ whereas Derrida rejected the void of Buddhism, claiming that any theory of nothingness buys into a theory of presence. Entering the space which displayed Schendel’s best-known work – the Monotypes, Droguinhas (Little Nothings) and Graphic Objects – was, however, exactly like entering a labyrinth of ciphers, of floating signifiers and traces of traces. All this work was produced in the mid- to late-Sixties and featured her signature use of ultra-fine, almost translucent Japanese rice paper. (One of her methods was to lay the rice paper on sheets of glass sprinkled with talc and ink or oil and draw on the paper with her fingernail.)

The Monotypes are delicate drawings of lines, circles, and text in different languages including German, Portuguese, English, French and Croatian. In The Task of the Translator (1923), Walter Benjamin wrote that, ‘just as a tangent touches a circle fleetingly and only at a single point, and just as the contact, not the point, prescribes the law in accord with which the tangent pursues its path into the infinite, in the same way a translation touches the original fleetingly and only at the infinitely small point of meaning, in order to follow its own path in accord with the law of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic development.’ Schendel must have read this essay; her line drawings are tangents which touch circles fleetingly and pursue paths into the ‘infinite’…

Mira Schendel: Graphic Object (1969). Private Collection, São Paulo, Brazil. Courtesy Mira Schendel Estate.
Mira Schendel: Graphic Object (1969). Private Collection, São Paulo, Brazil. Courtesy Mira Schendel Estate.

Of the text-based Monotypes, one series featured terms familiar from Heidegger –Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and Zeit. This latter was my favourite, with the ‘t’ continuing down the page like a line of black blood. Another series on display was a response to Stockhausen’s Song of the Youths, from which she derived a set of key words – Fire becomes FEUER fucco fire FEU feuer FUOCCO. The Droguinhas are soft sculptures she created by binding multiple sheets of rice paper into thickly compressed ropes, then knotting them into loose chains which, heaped on the floor or suspended, looked like a vast unwritten novel. This work and the two Untitled works from the series Little Trains, where blank pages were hung in a line on cotton thread, anticipate the later work of Eva Hesse, with her skeins of knotted rope and hanging blank panels of translucent latex.

The series of twelve Graphic Objects, for me the pièce de résistance of this exhibition, are larger and busier than the Monotypes. They are comprised of layers of rice paper with Letraset transfer lettering, handwritten letters of the alphabet, and arbitrary marks spattered across them. Hung from the ceiling in a transparent acrylic laminate, they can be viewed from either side, the text in reverse becoming ‘anti-text’. Peculiarly, and perhaps because some of the multiple marks reminded me of copses of trees, these made me think of landscapes; viewing them was like being ‘in the middle of the high forest of language itself’ (to quote Benjamin again). Questioning not just what we see but also how we see and understand it, these works address assigned meanings and modes of interpretation as they apply to the written or printed word. No doubt Schendel was thinking of the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations: ‘It would never have occurred to us to think that we felt the influence of letters upon us when reading, if we had not compared the case of letters with arbitrary marks.’

Schendel continued with the use of letters of the alphabet, using Letraset lettering, in smaller, more intimate works on paper, and also began in the early 1970s to do drawings made with a typewriter that use letters and numbers in their composition. These were on display along with multiple books and circular text works resembling the mandalas Ferdinand Kriwet made in the Sixties. Language in all of this work resists immediate reading, becoming instead a pliable medium – dissected, recombined and transformed into patterns, shapes and objects.

There was a beautiful installation in one of the rooms called Still Waves of Probability, made for the 10th São Paulo Biennale in 1969, composed of hundreds of thin, almost transparent fibres that hung from the ceiling and doubled-back to form a small whirl, so that the floor teemed with eddies. Apart from that, the rest of Schendel’s work left me cold. Her early paintings were still lifes, interiors and asymmetric compositions influenced by artists such as Giorgio Morandi and Paul Klee. She then moved on to more architectonic compositions that are poised between geometric abstraction and figuration. When she finally came back to painting in the 1980s she created a series of tempera and gold leaf works which were vandalised at their first exhibition, apparently having been misinterpreted as expressions of decorative luxury or a reference to religious art.

In The Century, Badiou describes the art of the twentieth century as a sombre art. At its best, Schendel’s is a sombre art. She may not be ‘one of the most important artists of the twentieth century’ (Tanya Barson, the Tate curator), but she more than deserves her place in the history of language and text-based work.