Abstract Critical

Mira Schendel – Letters and Words

Written by Katrina Blannin

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 - 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Graphic Object 1967, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros © mira schendel estate

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 – 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Graphic Object 1967, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros © mira schendel estate

As a part-time adult literacy tutor it has been an interesting, yet herculean, task trying to help adults who cannot read and write at all, learn how to form, let’s say ‘draw’, the letters of the alphabet and to simultaneously remember their letter ‘names’ and ‘sounds’. Blending the sounds together to spell words or read them, and thereafter string them together into sentences, can seem impossible at times. What are the building blocks? There are twenty-six letters to remember, with vowels and consonants, phonemes and morphemes playing special roles, not to mention thousands of words… It’s a complicated step-by-step process, people have different preferences for learning and there are endless barriers. Motivation and endless time for practice is key – imagine trying to learn Cantonese. Most of us take language and literacy for granted.

After staring at simple texts for hours at a time, over the years I have started seeing letters as little abstract drawings and words often become pictures.

Put a few letters or just two words together and suddenly you have a whole narrative – my mind wanders. What is a single letter? Is it a signifier and if so what for? It can’t be a symbol – a symbol for what? And if it is a sign then what is being signposted? It is not representational so, if I do a painting of a lone letter A would that be an abstract painting? If I do a painting of the letter K then maybe I am putting ‘me, myself and I’ in the work, but you as the viewer might immediately think about your husband Kevin. You might think I am trying to say something about language or would you just now see it as an abstract form or shape?

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 - 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Untitled 1963, Oil on canvas  support: 1459 x 1140 mm  painting, Tate. Presented by Tate Members 2006 © mira schendel estate

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 – 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Untitled 1963, Oil on canvas, support: 1459 x 1140 mm painting, Tate. Presented by Tate Members 2006 © mira schendel estate

Although you may never have heard of Mira Schendel, who died as long ago as 1988, over the last few years this is now being addressed by academics both here, in Brazil and internationally. There are now PhD theses, new essays and articles, and I have just watched half of a fifteen hour long series of lectures from a conference in 2011 at the Tate Modern, all of which you can find on their website. Schendel’s lifelong and serious investigations into philosophical, theological and scientific themes make her a perfect subject for investigation and debate. Her difficult and colourful life as an exile or émigré from many countries, not just one, and the necessity to juggle several languages made her into a tough character described as both complicated and contradictory. She had the stamina to produce hundreds of works on one set of visual/philosophical themes and ceaselessly entered into dialogue with a close circle of philosopher and writer friends throughout her life – often spending hours and hours up all night in passionate debate.

Although born in Zürich in 1919 to Jewish parents Schendel was brought up in Italy from the age of three by her mother. In Italy she received a Catholic education and then studied philosophy for two years focusing on Heidegger and phenomenological philosophy. After fleeing Mussolini’s persecution of the Jews she ended up, via Vienna and after a long walk through the Alps, in Yugoslavia where she married a Croat. They emigrated to Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1949 and in 1953 she moved to Sao Paulo, which was then experiencing a financial and cultural boom. Here she married her second husband, the German Knut Schendel.

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 - 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Untitled 1962, Oil on canvas, 74.9 x 74.7 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art, museum purchase © mira schendel estate

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 – 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Untitled 1962, Oil on canvas, 74.9 x 74.7 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art, museum purchase © mira schendel estate

Mira found herself developing her art practice alongside the Concrete and Neo-Concrete art movements (eg. Lygia Clark,1920–1988 and Hélio Oiticica, 1937–1980) of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the 50s and 60s. (Later Tropicália prompted great international interest in Brazil’s cultural output, during the time of the dictatorship of1964-1985). She has been allied with these movements but there is no evidence in the work that she ever really attempted to produce ‘concrete’ work with either a systems or constructivist methodology in mind – even though some works have something of that visual appearance. The first works that we encounter in the current Tate show, are paintings influenced by Cubism and artists like Morandi, and are more like architectonic abstractions; buildings, doorways and windows. Others with simple bands of colour or a horizontal line are actually titled ‘landscape’. The tempera or oil paint, often with added mud and sand, is thick and earthy, both in colour and texture, and this sensory quality confirms the semi-figurative nature of these works. They are good paintings and although I found myself feeling a bit disappointed when I moved into the next rooms and the work Mira is most well known for, I soon began to understand that this traditional monumental approach would not have suited her for long – she’d be too boxed in.

“She’s on the periphery; you can’t call it Concrete art,” says Tanya Barson curator of the Tate show. “[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.”

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 - 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Mandala 1974, Jones Bergamin © mira schendel estate, Photo: Ricardo Ruikauska 

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 – 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Mandala 1974, Jones Bergamin © mira schendel estate, Photo: Ricardo Ruikauska

Moving on to the Monotipias, which Mira produced from 1964-65, here we encounter snapshot selections from all the key series of the works, Untitled, Untitled (Universe), Genesis, Untitled (Time), Sign of Signs. She produced over 2000 works in this two-year period. Perhaps her interest in Eastern philosophy, prompted her to find a way to use the ultra thin Japanese rice paper someone had given her. Through trial and error she developed a personal drawing technique using oil paint, a sheet of glass and talcum to produce monotypes that could be viewed from either side of the paper. She became interested in ideas of ‘transparency’ and ‘meaning’ and this delicate hands-on technique using translucent paper has the light smudgy aesthetic quality reminiscent of pages torn out of an old book.

She had already begun to use short texts and words in her paintings linked to her philosophical inquiries. The Monotipias became the perfect way to explore the use of key words and phrases, handwriting itself, thickness of line, simple shapes: invented forms and spatial arrangements. For me these works have a break-through urgency about them and the kinetic and temporal qualities that run though most of her future works are borne out here. Some of the most powerful pieces, from Untitled 1965, play with the existential notions Umwelt (the environment/biological world), Mitwelt (the social/other people) and Eigenwelt (the phenomenological world of the self). The words are broken up into syllables, put into either lowercase or uppercase, placed here and there on the paper, or swivelled around. The alternating weight, width and length of the line suggest both the corporeal and the temporal, and in the whole series there is a kind of visual discursiveness at play that sometimes produces a scatter effect. And then there is the idea that the empty space in the work is an active void and has its own meaning: ‘an active presence of nothingness’. This sense of spatiality (the white space of the paper) became more and more important after studying the Chinese paintings of the highly regarded Chi Pai Shi. Mira switched between different languages (German, Portuguese, Italian) depending on circumstances, and here she really begins to explore bringing them together on one page. However, the Monotipias are not just short concrete poetry inspired text pieces. For me they are also strong tonal and spatial compositions revealing an important preoccupation with the formal.

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 - 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Untitled from the series Discs 1972, Tate. Presented by Tate Americas Foundation 2012 © mira schendel estate

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, 25 September 2013 – 19 January 2014, Mira Schendel 1919-1988, Untitled from the series Discs 1972, Tate. Presented by Tate Americas Foundation 2012 © mira schendel estate

I can understand some of the words in the Monotipias but not many, so do they only become marks or gestures and compositions, which I can appreciate and evaluate as marks and gestures and compositions? Maybe I am missing something here? I have read and listened to some of the essays which analyse Mira Schendel’s work in the light of her autodidactic interest in philosophy, investigations of the mystical/theological, the logical or rational and her avoidance of political activism, as well as the writings of, and relationships with, theoretical physicist Mário Schenberg, philosopher Vilem Flusser, psychoanalyst, poet and critic Theon Spanudis, the Concrete poet Haroldo de Campos, the friends she made in the Sao Paolo Dominican order of the Catholic Church and Guy Brett, who wrote about Mira’s Droguinhas in his 1968 book Kinetic Art: The Language of Movement.

Schendel’s Droguinhas do not describe any particular movement, but they are vital contributions to the language of movement because their fragility and energy indicate space as an active thing, a field of possibility.


Mira’s writings are not texts. They are not about anything, and so they cannot be read as representations. They are pre-texts. They are what texts are before they become texts. But as they are almost symbolic, as pre-texts, they cannot be ‘read’ as drawings either (not in the traditional sense of the term) They do not intend the thing, as drawings do; though neither do they intend, as do texts, to be about things. They should not be read in a metaphorical sense, but literally.

So, Mira Schendel’s works somehow exist in that indeterminate space between figuration and abstraction – and according to Flusser cannot be read as either texts or drawings and according to Brett, the energy in them indicates space as something active, but is only a field of possibility. How to get in then? My own language and literacy skills have been challenged during this short time for research, and trying to penetrate PhD level lectures and essays on the meaning in Schendel’s work hasn’t been easy. It is true, the more I read the more enlightened and fascinated I have become. But I have to conclude, that this body of work is, for me, visually uneven and erratic in places. The Graphic Object pieces are very beautiful but I can’t understand why they are sandwiched in Perspex sheets, and then hung grouped together so you can’t see any of them head on from any perspective – I actually feel that they look better in the catalogue. The minimal works in The Little Stubs series have a superb delicate compositional value and the perforated paper pieces have some balanced structural and subtle abstract aesthetic qualities. However, the series of works on paper called Homage to God – The Father of the West from 1975, are for me rather crude, whatever the meaning or content, and Untitled, from the series Itatiaia Landscape with the groups of little A’s running around on some hills are, dare I say it, a little twee.

I wonder what my literacy students would make of this show? They, of course, would be relying on a purely visual experience.


  1. Stephen Grant said…

    Till recently I found that when I looked at text in an artwork , I found it distracting and even annoying. However after recent visits to the drawing room , Victoria miro and the tate modern I have mellowed . The work at the drawing room was thought provoking and within a few days I visited the Tate and was seduced by the work of Mira Schendel. The installation Variants in room 12 is simply beautiful as is still waves of probability in room 10. Last night , the 19th Oct , I went to see Idris Khan at the Victoria Miro. A very powerful and thought provoking show. More power to the word , abstract or otherwise!!

  2. Robert Linsley said…

    I have a similar reaction to the drawings. When I saw them hanging in plastic I was turned off. The twisted paper nets are unique for her and pretty good. The rest of the work is very uneven.

    I think there’s too much reaching for significance in the criticism that’s been hovering around Latin American art lately. Not that there is none, but the real value might be missed with too much theorizing. That was one conclusion I came to in writing about Gego. But then Gego might be a better artist than Schendel. It’s hard to say. Perspectives must increase, and each context has its own battery of the same, but the problem is still to relate the work to some general or “universalist” discourse. Schendel makes Eva Hesse look different. Good. But that doesn’t mean that we have to erect a whole new world of relationships to include Schendel – we still have to compare her to Hesse, Morris and many others we already know. And above all to Paul Klee.

    • Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann said…

      I have just written out an overlong response to this post but think I may be allowing rhetoric to get the best of me, and twisting your meaning. I wonder if you could clarify what you mean by relating the work to a ‘universalist’ discourse and the necessity to view Schendel in relation to the Western canon?

      On a tangential note, one of the things that struck me – in an attempt to get to grips with Schendel – was the correspondence between her 1950s work and that of William Scott (who represented Britain at the 1953 São Paolo Bienal). These kinds of traces of (often) European influence on Brazilian art in the early 1950s (often taken in very different directions by the Brazilians in the succeeding years) seem a fascinating testament to the benefit and opportunities of opening up our ‘world of relationships’. (one that seemed to go unnoted in the exhibition).

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Ben, I’m sorry myself to have written an overlong response, or at least I said too much. Schendel’s work is alright but it’s not profoundly original or completely outside of canonical norms. And Brazilian art is Western, and as central as any as far as I’m concerned.

      • Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann said…

        No apologies needed, of course. I think your comments make more sense now and I would be inclined to agree in terms of a personal appraisal of Schendel: she most certainly did not seem as singular and directioned as her contemporaries and the comparison with Klee (invited by these exhibitions) certainly doesn’t do her many favours.

        My hesitance was over the extent to which Schendel’s work must live or die next to Hesse, Morris, etc and how far that field of comparison might be characterised as “universal”. There were, no doubt, many interactions between Brazilian art and that of other countries across Schendel’s formative years (not to mention her own migrations). It does seem though that some effort must be expended in looking to the specifics of the Brazilian scene in which she developed rather than simply aligning it next to prescribed giants of US and European modernism (as you in part seemed to imply). I sense (from previous articles) that this may underlie a wider distinction between our views : as for me it would be strange to claim that Jan Van Eyck must be seen in comparison to Piero della Francesca (in any context but my all time list of greats) without acknowledging the considerable differences of the cultures in which their art emerged. Or as Panofsky said it, that ‘the cosmos of culture, like the cosmos of nature, is a spatio-temporal structure’.

        This seems particularly important at this moment, given that the quantity of Latin American Art thrust before us looks set to multiply over the coming years. If such encounters are to be of value it seems essential that we do move beyond simply trying to slot the likes of Schendel neatly alongside the likes of Hesse in some ‘universalised order’ thrown forth by market forces. There are of course two sides to this: on the one hand the market will act to slot Brazilian art into its own niche market as ‘free’ from critical interpretation as an auction catalogue. On the other it will search for a value relative to European and North American masters (inevitably concluding it is of less worth – until the Brazilian economy rises sufficiently). In counteraction to these mechanisms as viewers and commentators it seems vital that we at least court the possibility that our world of relationships may indeed need to shift somewhat to accommodate an increased understanding of diverse contexts – or else simply admit our ignorance.

        I will agree Schendel doesn’t seem the most illuminating artist on which to base this case – but I would also contend that the permeability of our ‘system of relationships’ is exactly what we will need to admit over the coming years if we hope to withstand bland colonialist universalities. It is a permeability which has been the lifeblood of art from Durer to Picasso (and far beyond).

        Yes, Brazil may indeed be ‘western’ (in some definitions of the nebulous term) but it also possesses a wealth of quite distinct cultural characteristics. To contest that it exists at the centre of ‘western’ narratives, seems fanciful – despite increased attention of late. Of course, none of this necessarily makes Schendel any good – just implies that the means by which to judge her may not be from a rigid inflexible canon. (which I can see you are not suggesting in full – but seemed a danger of the subtext worth expanding!)

      • Robert Linsley said…

        short answer, I agree with everything you say.

        Long answer, you might be right about my inclinations. I was educated in social art history, and have written many contextual histories. I published one of the first academic studies of Wifredo Lam, and the first good one of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural, which Dawn Ades said set a new standard in that field. However, I am now very bored with that approach, and tend toward analysis that cuts across context – more useful to an artist.

        Gego was open about her interest in Klee, but his example is thoroughly absorbed and transformed. The “taking a line for walk” sort of thing. If one looks at Schendel with Klee in mind and detects a resemblance, she looks derivative.

    • Matte said…

      Klee, Schendel… it all starts to look like department store wrapping paper after I see it long enough. Sometimes when I take things in life like attaching too much theory to art, I do things like look at nsfw photos on tumblr and relate it to works in the western canon. I find lots of correlation. The venus is a common theme. Hairless genitals reference aesthetics in Ancient Greece. Saw a coffee table at Ikea, I bought it thinking it was a Julije Knifer sculpture with a piece of glass on top and thought I was getting a deal for $250, really joining a dialogue, you know. And he had generously made sure he had enough for everyone to purchase and enjoy. I found out later that I wanted my $250 back.

  3. Jeannie Brown said…

    A potentially fascinating discussion on how the human brain deciphers words and information – the overlap of written word and art, I too take literacy for granted, it’s easy to overlook the struggles of people with dyslexia.
    I have found this discussion on Schendel’s work thought provoking.

  4. Sue Preston said…

    We lucky ones do take ease of literacy for granted; I was made more aware of my dyslexic friend’s struggles when in Russia, faced with Cyrillic which looks as if it should be decodable but wasn’t. It’s instinctive to search for meaning in text and I look forward to seeing the Schendel works to see if it applies