Fine arts

Talent from the soul

Controversial thesis by Geraldo Souza Dias on Mira Schendel brought out in luxury edition

Cosac Naify publicityMira SchendelCosac Naify publicity

War changes people’s heads for ever and in every sense. There is absolutely nothing new in this statement, of course. For Swiss artist, Mira Schendel, or Myrrha Dagmar Dub (1919-1988), who lived in Brazil, the impact of the brutality of the event led her to live through what is called in existentialism “experience-limit”, which is capable of bringing about a great transformation, in the words of architect, painter and art theoretician, Geraldo Souza Dias. She had just joined up with some refugees and married Jossip Hargesheimer, a Croat of Austrian descent. With the end of the conflict and because of Europe’s new political division everyone who had been displaced from their former homes started being called “displaced persons”. Mira identified with this huge contingent of expatriated people and even worked as a volunteer in the Rome office of an organization that was trying to resolve basic issues for these individuals – work, housing and citizenship.

It was in this period that she became familiar with the bureaucracy of the emigration processes, an effort initially dealt with by her husband – until Mira decided to leave Europe. Her letters from the period mention the United States and Venezuela as possible destinations. But the final and more rapid response came from the Brazilian government. She landed in the biggest country in Latin America in 1949, more precisely in Porto Alegre. She came from Rome, where she had been living for a long time. There, in the previous decade she had studied philosophy at the Catholic University and in 1936 started going to art school – she concluded neither of the two courses because of the war. In Brazil her life quickly changed course. She stared painting and working with ceramics. She went back to studying, published poetry and also gave painting lessons. She was accepted to participate in the 1st International Biennale Exhibition in São Paulo in 1951, when she expressed her vision of a world transformed by war, had contact with international experiences and saw her name gain national recognition. She gained even more fame on moving to São Paulo two years later, when she adopted the surname Schendel.

Mira died in 1988, by which time she was a renowned artist. Since then, recognition of her has never ceased to grow. Her work has been presented at exhibitions both in Brazil and abroad. In 1994, in the 22nd International Biennale Exhibition in São Paulo, she received her own special room. Five years later she became the theme of the PhD thesis, Mira Schendel – From the spiritual to corporeity by Geraldo Souza Dias, a surprising and courageous analysis of the spiritual and religious content of the artists’ work, based on theories of abstract art that are not only limited to formal questions, but also those linked to its “signification”. The revised text has now been published in a luxury volume by publishing house, Cosac Naify, under the same title. In an interview with Pesquisa Fapesp, Dias explains that what is different about his study is that it tries to recover the life/art binomial for understanding her art. He does this with the support of documents, letters and interviews. In addition to the artistic personality of Mira, the thesis highlights the immigrant status of the artist, which oscillates between those people who were aligned with the Jews during Nazi-fascist times and those included in the Catholicism of the Montinian age.

The researcher believes his work differs from previous critical positions because he does not include the work of Mira Schendel with any formalism, as he considers it to be linked to her philosophic-religious thinking, from which the artist never distanced herself. “Bringing criticism to bear between the formalist and existential approach, as argued by her work, Mira’s art does not fall under the incidence of the significant, because it is carried out as a cultivated sign in the web of philosophic-religious thinking that sustains it.” So, relating to the thinking of Tartaglia when he was starting out as an intellectual, Mira soon opened up to the philosophy of the Christian core in the broad meaning used by Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Mounier “that other positions are followed, in which debates involving the works of philosophers or other theoreticians are discussed”. Among these are Gebser, Houédard, Bense, Walther, Schmitz and Jung and Brazilians, Vilém Flusser, Mário Schenberg, Haroldo de Campos and Theon Spanudis.

Very sure of himself as far as any possible disagreement is concerned, Dias stubbornly defends his study. In the original thesis, he observes, which was published in Germany by Galda + Wilch, Glienicke there is a chapter entitled “The posthumous reception of the work”, where he criticizes both the eminently formalist approach of important thinkers – critics, curators, cultural agents – of the visual arts in Brazil, as well as the tendency seen internationally for countries to take over as their own the so-called art from fringe countries by means of major themed exhibitions (women’s art, resistance art, art from a “different” modernity, etc.) which cultivate  exoticism relative to hegemonic models and submerge the works in approaches that, most of the time, do not respect their prerogatives. “For various reasons, including that the book not be excessively long and so that more photos could be included (this is an art book, after all) this part was removed from the Brazilian edition.”

Mira SchendelUntitled, 1965Mira Schendel

However, he adds, the fact that this discussion is so up to date became clear in the exhibition recently organized by the New York Museum of Modern Art, that tried to establish a forced relationship between the work of Mira and of León Ferrari, “a great artist, undoubtedly, but one whose work is much closer to the epidermic phenomena of culture and political denunciation”. For Dias, his thesis fulfills the role in the sense that it provides the correct interpretation of work that is so unique in the artistic scenario of the second half of the 20th century, even though artistic institutions, both at the national, but mainly at the international level, are more rigid and less inclined to great reformulations. In this sense, he discusses the artist’s views on art, theology, philosophy and culture from the concepts of phenomenology and the theory of communication and ends up casting light on her work both  concerning the philosophy of art and psychology. He explores, for example, the interest of the artist in I Ching, the thoughts of Jung and her relations with the Dominicans.

The relationship of the researcher with the work of Mira began in 1972, when he saw an exhibition of the artist at USP that had traced letters stuck on paper. “I was preparing for entrance exams for the School of Architecture and I found it interesting to notice how letters also have design and could be used as elements in works of art.” In the 1980’s, he moved away from São Paulo and lived a short time in Florianópolis and then in New York. Because of this, after returning to Brazil he only had contact again with the work of Mira in 1989, the year after the death of the artist, thanks to a major retrospective exhibition organized by USP’s Museum of Contemporary Art at the university. “At the time I could see certain elective affinities between some of her work and some of mine.”

Dias’ study of Mira’s work began between 1993 and 1995, when he was in Germany on a scholarship. “I used to go to the studios of the Universität der Künste Berlin and had close contact with the painter, Karl-Horst Hödicke. This period I consider the preamble to my work.” He prepared a series of paintings that were the practical corpus of his PhD that he had started two years earlier at USP, where his tutor was Ana Maria Belluzzo. The theoretical part of the project dealt with the question of spirituality in art and I tried to resurrect the humanist, anti-materialist view that was to be found in the 20th century pioneers of abstract art, such as Mondrian, Malewitsch and Kandinsky, and the way they drew close to the world views of doctrines that were relatively popular at the beginning of the century, such as theosophy and anthroposophy. “This theme, which was treated with a great deal of reserve in Brazil, was the object of serious research by curators, museums and even teaching institutions in Germany, which led me to restart my PhD along the lines proposed by the German university. My new tutor was Professor Andreas Haus, who signed the preface to my book.”

At the suggestion of the professor he decided to link this discussion to Brazilian artists. “On a trip to Brazil in 1995, I visited the HO Project (which later became the Hélio Oiticica Center, archives from the IEB-USP, the library of the São Paulo Biennale Foundation) and I started to close in on the name of Mira Schendel, particularly after I had contact with the archive organized by her family in São Paulo.” The researcher managed to gain access to the personal documents of the artist through Ada Clara Schendel, her only daughter and the person responsible for maintaining the archive of documents, letters, diary, etc., and who had also started cataloguing the extensive work of her mother. With her permission he copied a large part of the archive so he could study it quietly in Berlin. “On my visits to Brazil I mainly tried to see and study her artistic works, but I also took the opportunity to interview the people mentioned in her diaries and letters.”

The researcher emphasizes that what is relevant and revealing in the material he researched and included in the books are parts of recorded statements, excerpts from her letters, passages from her diaries, chapters from books that she highlighted and extracted to discuss with her friends. All this, which was always checked against her artistic work, contributed towards the reconstruction of a very singular artistic personality. “I familiarized myself with her handwriting, with her peculiar way of moving between German, Italian and Portuguese, with her grammatical incoherencies, but principally with her incisive perception of the world’s problems, with the refinement of her visual ‘solutions’.”

When questioned about how he would sum up the nature of Mira’s work, Dias says he would rewrite the last paragraph of his book, which tries in few words to indicate what the work of Mira means to him: “Mira Schendel was an artist who managed, with the minimum material, to evoke the maximum emotion. Her work touches us precisely because of this economy of elements, even when she’s dealing with traditional art issues, like still life paintings or her landscape paintings. The key element of her work can be considered as someone`s experience in the world being used as a metaphor for the human condition, which the artist assumed existentially, it’s true, but it was always mediated by a divine principle”.