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?
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 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.”
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.
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.