Brazilian artist Mira Schendel's energy fills 14 rooms in Tate Modern retrospective

By Ben Miller | 25 September 2013

Exhibition review: Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, London, until January 19 2013

A black and white photo of a female artist holding a sculpture made of ropes
Mira Schendel in London in 1966© The estate of Mira Schendel
Mira Schendel is one of the most important Brazilian artists of the 20th century, but the energy of this restless artist’s works has rarely been felt by audiences beyond her native land.

Accounts of her life describe this deep thinker as an effervescent lifeforce. And momentum unites these highly diverse, complex and rewarding 14 rooms, ranging from graphic design and greetings card templates to geometric investigations, figurative still lifes and spiritual installations based on quotes from the New Testament.

Schendel’s own story takes some following. Born in Zurich, she studied philosophy at Milan’s Catholic University, but her time there ended prematurely in 1938 when she had her nationality repealed and was forced to flee across Europe as a result of her Jewish roots, ending up in Yugoslavia.

In 1953 – four years after returning to Brazil – she joined a community of émigré thinkers, becoming a self-taught painter despite having no money for materials.

Schendel saw painting as a matter of life and death. Architectural compositions characterise her early creations, leading to abstract blocks of starless skies, figurative enigmas based on Homer's Iliad and little circular cross-sections channelling eastern circumscriptions, their colours marked out into sections like mathematical kaleidoscopes.

A German philosopher (Max Bense), a poet and diplomat (Joao Cabral de Melo Neto) and a musician (Chico Buarque) offer the thoughts and lyrics teeming through rows of dense language maps, aligned in suspended squares, thick with thousands of letters illuminated by natural light.

Schendel made these for the Venice Biennale of 1968. Her subsequent act on a national scale, Still Waves of Probability, came at the Bienal de São Paulo, an occasion tainted by a boycott held by domestic and visiting artists unenamoured with the military dictatorship which controlled Brazil.

Schendel spoke louder in presence than in absence. Looming in a rainfall of white, frail long hairs, her installation with its cascade of fibres "listened for liberation", according to the artist, who sought to depict the love, joy and suffering of existence through the almost-invisible.

Little Nothings, a set of soft sculptures which interlock and weave around each other, relate both to phenomenology and Zen Buddhism. They hang with a kind of fragile potential, as if they might dance or sink at any moment.

Perhaps the highlight, as inert as it may sound by comparison, is the case full of Schendel’s sketchbooks, lying open on selected pages but accompanied by screens on which visitors can leaf through them.

Typically prolific, Schendel made a couple of hundred of them during 1971. They vary in size and look, some thin and wide, fanning out rows of simple black circles, others more compact, lines crossing each other in spheres or parallels.

Transparent paper gives these inks and transfers a misty effect, as if being looked at through a cloud. Where sketchbooks might traditionally provide a passing context or historical curiosity, these are exhibits in themselves – a detailed visualisation of an artist's process.

Transparency was an important concept for her, taking the German philosopher, poet and linguist Jean Gebser’s view of it as a metaphor for human consciousness and the perception of time.

Barely-there sheets of paper shuffle along a washing line across the corner of one space. Their shadow hangs dark across the floor, implying the capacity for movement Schendel wanted to evoke. Then there are see-through angles of riveted acrylic, dangled from the ceiling like angled limbs turning in and away from themselves.

There is much more worth mentioning, not least spray paintings on themes of faith and an asymmetrical constellation of 93 small graphic objects bearing further mathematical connotations. Everything bears the imprint of a brilliant mind at play, and a figure deserving of wider admiration.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday and Saturday). Admission £8.60-£11. Book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @Tate.

More pictures:

An image of a square made up of three yellow triangles and one black triangle
Untitled (1962). Oil on canvas. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art, museum purchase© The estate of Mira Schendel
A photo of black and white triangles against a brown background
Untitled (1963). Presented by Tate Members, 2006© The estate of Mira Schendel
A photo of a circle with lots of letters jumbled inside it
Untitled (Disks) (1972). Letraset, graphite on paper and transparent acrylic. Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, 2007© The estate of Mira Schendel
A photo of lots of squares hanging on strings inside an art gallery
Variants (1977). Oil on rice paper and acylic sheets. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art© The estate of Mira Schendel
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