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Variant, 1977.

Mira Schendel at Tate Modern

Mira Schendel at Tate Modern

A Lexicon for the Émigré and the Exile?

To the insider (irony intended) Mira Schendel’s recent retrospective at the Tate Gallery reads like a lexicon for the émigré and the exile. A tendency to write backwards ( writing as discovery rather than starting off knowing what must be said) I’m curious to see whether this view will hold when I down my pen.

Here’s a further sticking point. As I caught Mira Schendel on her last day at the Tate, I write posthumously, furthermore for a show of an artist who died in 1988. Thus with regret I can’t recommend viewing her life’s work in a physical space but must urge an art audience still unfamiliar with Schendel to explore the ouvre through the Tate’s excellent catalogue or online. It will be an enthralling experience nonetheless as Mira Schendel was an artist of extremes, producing prolifically, series after series of playful and tenaciously worked through pieces which in their totality speak of a brilliant yet driven eloquence. One question has to be, how could so much intensity produce works so ethereal? Hold that thought.

As I viewed I felt deeply connected to Schendel. Exile was on my radar. It has become my subject through a recent reencounter with my father’s exile from Spain and the realisation that my English life has been decisively lived through the distorted lens of second generation exile. Usually I’m not able to process written information at a gallery while viewing and so it was not until later that I discovered Mira was born in Switzerland in 1919 to a Jewish family although baptised Catholic. Her parent’s early divorce in 1922 signalled a move to Milan, she was never to see her father again. A Catholic education and further dislocation occurred when in 1938 her studies were suspended by an Italian fascist decree stripping Jews of citizenship. Between 1939 and 1944 Mira’s movements are said to be uncertain but we know this, she “fled Italy in 1941, a refugee travelling through the Alps on foot. She was aided and abetted by a kindly French Catholic”1 We know also that she gained both her first husband and Yugoslavian citizenship during this period. A return to Italy in 1949 was as a ‘displaced person’ and economic hardship led to a decision to emigrate to Brazil, not really from choice, but because it was the first country to accept her visa application. Here she divorced, married again, gave birth to Ada, divorced again and developed her practice in Sao Paulo from her kitchen table until her death in 1988. She became says the Tate, one of the ‘most important Latin American artists of the twentieth century’ but has been virtually unknown in Britain until now.

It’s not clear to me whether Schendel was better known artist in Europe, although we know she made return journeys and presented her work in Oslo. What is certain is that Mira Schendel secured an audience for her work in Brazil and has long been considered a major player in South America. I was curious about this. Ducking under the cultural radar on what was once home turf can tend to be the lot of the exile and the émigré, for being either is a disappearing trick of sorts. This observation is crucial to my reading of her work.

Let’s be clear, I don’t wish to be reductive about Schendel, whose visual poetics encompassed media as diverse as perspex, typography, ink, spray paint, oils, watercolour, and rice paper. She painted, created sculptures and installations. She also dealt as the Tate catalogue says in ‘themes of existence, self-understanding, faith and language’. She was a serious intellectual force delving into philosophy and theology as well as aesthetics in forging a rarified visual language. Carried out with a species of dedication bordering on manic devotion during a working phase, her visual quest must not be negated or boiled down to the experience of exile alone but I feel it as a constant beat. These intense work phases were followed by fallow periods, a fact I found interesting, endearing and not unfamiliar. “Mira works [for] six months, day and night – and then she sleeps six months. Or she cleans up the house, or she goes to travel, or she cleans up obsessively…”2 My viewing then, threw up exile as a connecting thread within a colossal ouvre, as the catalogue says on the back cover, an ‘early experience of cultural, geographic and linguistic displacement is revealed in her art.’

Walking around the galleries then, I gave my attention to the works rather than the backstory. Schendel retains a surprisingly innovative and contemporary edge, but there is something crucially fragile about the work, especially when she hits her stride and discovers rice paper, which she knots and drapes into sculptural forms, hangs like washing on a line and inks and letrasets into copiously. Her work with language, drawing on the various tongues she spoke, her plays on meaning and in sheer visual terms is dazzling. Within this, she creates a perfect interplay through her choice of support (rice paper) and decisions to suspend works or encase them in perspex to further the viewer experience and the possible interpretations and meanings. Transparency, lightness, and perhaps existence itself is turned this way and that and inside out, as Schendel plays the game of see-through with letters visible on both sides of the paper so that they can be both seen but not quite grasped simultaneously.

The scope of the Tate show is too vast to detail here, but I must mention “Variants”, 1977, Oil on Rice Paper with Acrylic 93 parts, dimensions variable. Here Schendel creates a ‘snow storm’ of such beauty I felt like a child open mouthed at Christmas. Variants feels like a most unnatural natural phenomenon - a weather event from an unknown magic tale, which momentarily shifts the viewer into a new space. Immersive, and contradictory there is something richly minimal about this work. I felt Mira’s precision and method everywhere but I also felt her urgency, an urgency I think I’ve seen before. Intensely filled rectangles of meaning suspended (held even) in a moment of calm. Yet to walk around this piece is to animate it and set it in motion, although it is you who moves you feel like the ‘snow letters’ are moving, falling swirling. It was by no means the only moment of wonder.

So back to the lexicon, and I must quote extensively from Holly Williams.

“Given her rich association with the country, it would be nice and neat to claim Mira found her spiritual, artistic home in Brazil, but that would be an oversimplification. “It wasn’t a choice actually, it was the only place possible,” says Ada over lunch in the chi-chi district of Jardim Paulista, with her son Max. Ada now looks after her mother’s estate, and lives in São Paulo herself – although the suburban house she grew up in with Mira is long gone. “She hoped when she arrived here that she could find a place for her, but it’s not something you can adopt.””3

“Where did Mira’s intense feeling of emotional dislocation come from? Both Barson and Ada stress Mira’s outsider status, how she was never settled geographically, artistically, even linguistically. Mira, and her art, were always deeply concerned with notions of territory and of home, of identity and displacement. “She suffered all her life with this,” says Ada, adding that although Mira spoke German, Italian and Portuguese, “she didn’t speak any language without an accent. She was a misplaced person, really.” She used different languages for different parts of her life – Portuguese for the day-to-day, German for philosophising, reverting to Italian for the most basic building blocks of language such as counting, or when she got particularly emotional; all three feature in her art. Perhaps it should be no surprise that her work is so concerned with language – its power and meaning, but also its disintegration and breakdown.”4

Going back to my original question about the intense and yet ethereal quality of much of Mira’s work, my recognition of the exile at work goes some way to creating a response. A displaced person has no place. The question becomes how to exist without a place. Further, if existence is in question, how can one be seen or heard? In what language can one be heard and in what space? The transparent works, worked on both sides talk of invisibility and duality - the now you see me now you don’t of a game with a vital edge. The exile is also at work in her driven prolificness. Exiled writers and artists often feel silenced, the impossibility of any return sets in and yet emotionally one is rarely a true citizen in an adoptive land - it feels like a death of sorts in which survival is the production of a torrent of works, in which a new space to be is sought. To create, to speak is to be alive. The key to survival is to be heard.

Thus, it is not far fetched to assert that the intensity and ethereal are fused in the creation of a territory for a displaced person. I am so glad that Mira found her audience in São Paulo and that she lived to produce such an important body of work. I stand by my view that she has created a lexicon for the émigré and the exile.

1,2,3,4 Quotations, including those from Ada are taken from The woman in black: Mira Schendel is finally bursting on to the British art scene Holly Williams Independent Saturday 31 August 2013