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Visual Arts

Breaking the silence

Mira Schendel, a unique figure in Brazilian modernism, continues to influence Brazilian art and has an exhibition in São Paulo

Untitled, 1965, from the Monotypes series. Oil on rice paper  (47.4 x 23 cm)

Inhotim Cultural Institute Collection / Reproduction Eduardo EckenfelsUntitled, 1965,
from the Monotypes series.
Oil on rice paper
(47.4 x 23 cm)Inhotim Cultural Institute Collection / Reproduction Eduardo Eckenfels

In the 40 years of her work, Mira Schendel was never an artist that drew crowds. Until the 1990s, when her visibility began to increase, her contemporary works sparked only curious glances in intellectual circles and from experienced critics, but the works failed to attract anyone other than an audience that enjoys the visual arts in galleries. In 1966, the locals ignored her show at the Buchholz Gallery in Lisbon, even though it had been highly praised by curator and critic Fernando Peres. At the time, Peres lamented the fact that the “exhibition, with such unbelievable modernity, has not been understood.” In reality, isolation was always a biographical characteristic and the artist from Switzerland who became a naturalized citizen of Brazil was never part of any school or movement, as was also true of Alfredo Volpi. Nothing in her remarkable career as an artist has approached the scale of the retrospective of her work that is now on display at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, in the capital city of São Paulo State.

The exhibition, which runs until October 19, 2014, is the largest international retrospective of the works of Mira Schendel (1919-1988). It is even more grandiose than the original show at Tate Modern in London, in late 2013, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Serralves Foundation, in Porto, Portugal during the first half of 2014. At the Pinacoteca, there are more canvases and drawings from the 1950s, as well as lesser known series from the 1960s, such as Embroidery and Still Life, in addition to the series of drawings with applied gold leaf entitled the Japanese Papers, produced in the mid-1970s. In São Paulo, the show also includes a significant number of works from the collection of the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC/USP), donated by Theon Spanudis, an art critic and friend of the artist. All told, the exhibition brings together about 300 works that are on display in 11 rooms on the first and second floors of the museum. Produced between 1953 and 1987, the series on rice paper are showcased, such as the drawings known as the Monotype Prints (1964-1966), Little Nothings and Little Trains series, and her famous Graphic Objects, for which she received recognition during her experimental phase.

Although her career as an artist began with painting, Schendel moved freely between drawings, sculptures and installations. In the exhibition catalog, curator Taísa Palhares explains that the hiatus in her production should not be seen as a repudiation of painting. The artist stopped painting simply because she did not want her creation to be surrounded by formal questions. This pause brought about new possibilities for her work in an experimental gesture that was unique in the recent history of Brazilian art. “There will never be another Schendel, she has no direct heirs, nor did she create any movements. She always sought to avoid being labeled,” Palhares says. Nonetheless, she influenced a generation of artists in the 1980s, such as Nuno Ramos, Marco Giannotti, Paulo Monteiro and Paulo Pasta.

Sarrafo, 1987. Acrylic, tempera and plaster on wood (97 x 180 x 52 cm)

Mira Schendel Estate, São Paulo, Brazil / Reproduction Max SchendelSarrafo, 1987.
Acrylic, tempera and plaster on wood
(97 x 180 x 52 cm)Mira Schendel Estate, São Paulo, Brazil / Reproduction Max Schendel

In academia, the growing interest in her works is perceptible, including PhD critic Cauê Alves’s The Philosophical Dimension in the Works of Mira Schendel (A dimensão filosófica na obra de Mira Schendel), from the USP Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences, or the research of painter Geraldo Souza Dias, (the book Mira Schendel: From the Spiritual to Corporeality – Mira Schendel: do espiritual à corporiedade), published by Cosac Naify, for example. Outside Brazil, again according to Palhares, she is being studied with increasing frequency. “But I believe that the studies still fail to reflect her importance,” says the curator, who also has a PhD in philosophy from USP. To Palhares, the reasons that interfere with the visibility of the works, now celebrated by the great museums where her works have been on display, transcend the isolation imposed by her language or her personality. The main reason is that very few of her works are in public collections. According to Tanya Barson, curator of the exhibition at Tate Modern, who spent nearly a decade researching Mira Schendel’s body of work, about 90% of the artist’s works are owned by private collectors. “I believe that the exhibition is helping to pave the way to new areas of research,” Palhares says.

During the 40 years in which she produced art, Schendel interacted with major figures such as Mário Schenberg and Haroldo de Campos. Mário Pedrosa, Guy Brett, Vilém Flusser and Max Bense also wrote about her works while she was still alive. However, now that some time has passed, Palhares says that the time is now to evaluate the greatness of her work. “Putting this into perspective, the fact that she produced a body of work that was both large and consistent is incredible,” she says. “It may be that the critical texts of the time were not yet able to perceive this dimension for obvious reasons. Now there are new opportunities for reading.”