A conversation on Mira Schendel

With Ada and Max Schendel and Henry Allsopp

Mira Schendel, Variantes II (Variants II), 1965 © The Estate of Mira Schendel

  • 10 June 2019

Henry Allsopp is a Director in London focused on the gallery’s activities in South America given his special expertise in the region’s artists and art scene. Mira Schendel is an artist he greatly admires, and on the occasion of her centenary, he discusses Mira’s personal outlook and its impact on her work with the artist’s daughter, Ada and grandson, Max.

‘I have just spent two absolutely fascinating days with Ada and Max Schendel, daughter and grandson of the incomparable Mira. I was delighted to speak with two members of her family about her life and work to celebrate the centenary of her birth.’—Henry Allsopp

Henry Allsopp: Over the course of her lifetime, your grandmother had three different nationalities and lived in numerous places. How do you think her immigrant story influenced her work?

Max Schendel: She was born in Switzerland to an Italian mother and a German Jewish father, but because of the anti-Semitic aggression they experienced, they were forced to move to Italy where she was brought up and educated. However, once again, just prior to the war, anti-Semitism in Mussolini’s Fascist regime forced her out of university where she was studying philosophy and art, confiscated her Italian passport and forced her to flee on foot to Sarajevo, where she lived out the war. She had accents in every language she spoke, she held a misplaced passport for large parts of her life, and she never felt like she had a home—she lived, so to speak, in permanent exile. This is very much reflected in her work of the 50s—there are many references to home, to doors, and to domesticity. All are a stand-in for coming back and returning. In the Monotypes you can see the influence as well. Mira completed a large series she referred to as ‘La Notte Questa,’ which are all references to doors, portas or gates. When she first arrived in Porto Alegre, the immigrants were treated very poorly, and it was only when she moved to São Paulo and met her second husband (another German immigrant) that she had an experience ‘home’ in any real sense.

Ada Schendel: Coming to terms with her experience as a result of the Second World War was a huge struggle, but it was absolutely not the only one she faced. She never knew her father, and her mother was schizophrenic, which was an enormous emotional burden for Mira. She was brought up—and remained most of her life—a deeply devout Roman Catholic. However, understanding the brutality and tragedy she experienced though the doctrine of the Vatican became impossible. Her Catholicism had almost certainly saved her from the death camps—as some Catholic ‘half Jews’ were protected by the senior clergy—but her faith eventually failed her, and this also had a profound effect on her work.

HA: What role did her art play in helping her integrate and adapt to her new life in Brazil? As a refugee, did it help her engage with a community to get to know people, was she friends with her Brazilian contemporaries?

MS: She did not like to talk about art as much as life, emotions, and philosophy. She knew all of the artists, but was not part of any community, and, in fact, over her lifetime, she never really had one particular set of friends. She was an outsider and did not want to belong to a group. Her work was not concrete—nor minimal—and she did not come from Bauhaus. Probably the artist that she had most interaction with was Sergio Camargo, but even that was only for a few years and it was as much him encouraging her to travel as he did with all of the artists—helping them visit Paris and London.

AS: Her experiences during the war had given Mira extraordinary courage, independence, determination, and resourcefulness, added to which she had my father, who was an absolute rock in her life. He allowed her all the freedom that creativity needs at a time when being a female artist and intellectual was very far from the normality of postwar life in São Paulo. All of these character traits, combined with my father’s presence, enabled Mira to pursue a career in relative isolation without the need to belong or the desire for recognition from her peers. My mother was not antisocial. In fact, she was a true Gemini, a people person. As Max mentioned, she really was as happy talking about life with the newspaper seller as a she was discussing Goethe.When Mira first moved to São Paulo she lived in the city center but soon met my father who already lived in the suburbs, and she decided to move there with him. She was probably the cleverest person in the neighborhood and was a great mentor to the other European exiles, particularly with theological questions and issues of faith.

HA: How did her relationship with Signals gallery come together, was it through Camargo’s friendship with Guy Brett?

AS: Yes that is correct, it was Camargo who was extremely active in getting recognition for Latin American artists in Europe and encouraging them to travel and study in Europe. Guy Brett first came to my mother’s studio in 1965, at the most prolific and varied period of her career. He witnessed firsthand the extraordinary production of the Monotypes, which by the time he visited numbered into the many thousands in numerous different nuanced series. Brett immediately offered her a show in London. However the exhibition was fated, as the gallery was forced into closure a week or so after her show opened.

HA: How did she feel about the discussion her contemporaries were having about object-viewer relationship and sensory experiences that came about with audience participation? Where did she feel she fit into the radical developments that were taking place in South America? There are elements of her work that seem to share some of these concerns.

MS: I know what you mean with the search for space, grasping the void, and a desire for three-dimensionality, but she was not really interested in developments in São Paulo or Caracas or Paris. She was aware of them, but followed her own path.

Mira Schendel, Variantes II (Variants II), 1965 © The Estate of Mira Schendel

AS: My mother’s work was remarkably different from anything else being produced by either Groupo Ruptura in São Paulo or the Concrete artists in Rio. While she appreciated and understood their importance, her independence led her in other directions. Lygia Clark once told Mira her work was too intellectual and needed to come more from her gut. Mira’s witty and ironic reply only served to confuse Lygia. Although she had a close relationship with Camargo and other artists of the Grupo Casa Sete, she was closer to the first generation of Brazilian conceptual artists that emerged out of the political turmoil at the start of the 20-year dictatorship

‘The Monotype liberated Mira rather like music and dance liberated the Neo-Concrete artist. There was rigidity before this period, and the freedom that she gained from this experimentation is evident throughout the rest of her career.’

HA: So we have established that she was not particularly close with her contemporaries, but can you tell me how she interacted with the Biennial and emerging museum world in São Paulo?

MS: She participated in the first São Paulo Biennial in 1951, but most significantly in 1969, when many of the artists in Brazil boycotted, she presented among her most radical works the zenith of her exploration of the ‘void’, ‘Ondas Paradas de Probabilidade (Still waves of probability)’. She believed that participation was a form of activism. This came from the perspective of a European who had suffered during the war and did not believe that doing nothing was the answer. She believed in silent participation: to have her artistic voice heard rather than be suppressed by the dictatorship was her avowed position. She also believed and proved that she could be a significant thorn in the side of those she stood up to.

AS: My mother’s participation in the 1969 Biennial was criticized by some São Paulo-based artists who boycotted the institution, while others supported her. She also did not make herself very popular during her installation, as she took a very powerful nail gun to individually attach hundreds of filaments directly into the concrete ceiling of Oscar Niemeyer’s celebrated building. However, once completed, ‘Waves of Possibilities’ was a haven of peace and tranquillity in an otherwise ‘summer of love’ 1969 Biennial. There was another work that stood out and was shown next to Mira’s installation. This was ‘Penetrable’, by the hugely celebrated Jesús Raphael Soto. However, this led to confusion about Schendel’s installation. This continued for a long time after the Ondas... which she regarded as so important, and was completely misread and contextualized as the same as the Soto work. The ‘Ondas Paradas de Probabilidade (Still waves of probability)’ is about extracting feeling and experience from within, as opposed to the experience being brought about by the penetration of your space, as in Soto’s work.

Mira Schendel, ca. 1964 in the garden of her house, São Paulo

Mira Schendel, Variantes II (Variants II) (detail), 1965 © The Estate of Mira Schendel

HA: Thinking a bit more broadly about her place in society, how did she see her position in a male-dominated art world? Max: She wasn’t a feminist—that wasn’t really her struggle in life—she had very strong views and loved to discuss and debate, so she never felt her voice was suppressed.

AS: My mother was an extremely feminine person, but as in her art, in life her style was unique. She dressed and behaved in a fashion that you might imagine a feminist of her period would do. She wore trousers and smoked a pipe in the street, which at the time was very provocative. She stood up to macho men and got the better of them, usually due to her humor and intellect.

HA: The work we are showing in Basel, ‘Variantes II (Variants II)’, is made up of multiple different plexicovered hanging monotypes arranged at different angles, heights and orientations, creating an almost maze-like abstract linear environment that can be approached and viewed numerous ways. It is also one of the very first of many works suspended on translucent wire. How did the hanging, floating, suspended element develop in Mira’s work?

MS: The hanging comes through her experimentation with three dimensionality and translucency. With the advent of the Monotype, rigidity is completely lifted and it fundamentally changes her work.

AS: Yes, the hanging element came as direct result of her experimentation with glass, acrylic, and nylons to enable this paper production to be visible on all sides, for transparency. The title of this work is the key to understanding not only this, but all the Monotypes. Variantes indicates the desire that these strong yet delicate marks and symbols be able to float in all and any direction without constraint.

HA: She was given the rice paper by her friend Mario Schenberg, but initially struggled, as it is very fine and difficult to draw on—the paper would tear too easily. Can you tell me how she came to making the Monotypes, what was the technique?

The Monotype liberated Mira rather like music and dance liberated the Neo-Concrete artist. There was rigidity before this period, and the freedom that she gained from this experimentation is evident throughout the rest of her career.

MS: Yes, you are right. She loved the paper but couldn’t work with it so she came up with another technique. Using oil ink she would cover a sheet of glass, add layers of baby powder and place the paper over it. Mira would then gently draw, using a variety of thick and thin tools onto the paper, causing the ink to seep through the paper, much like a photographic transparency with the image coming through from the back. It was the perfect solution and enabled an incredible investigation into light and shadow, translucency and space. She worked almost exclusively for two years on the Monotypes from 1963 to 1965. She then returned to the technique to create the Objetos graficos in the late 60s and 70s, and in the mid to late 70s she added ‘Letraset’ to some the monotype drawings created earlier in the decade.

AS: The resourcefulness she possessed was vital to finding the right technique for the Monotypes, and once she had discovered it, the results were extraordinary.

HA: Is it true to say that there are really two periods in her work, before and after the Monotypes?

MS: I think it is hard to overstate the importance of this period of very intense work.

AS: Yes I suppose it is. The Monotype liberated Mira rather like music and dance liberated the Neo-Concrete artist. There was rigidity before this period, and the freedom that she gained from this experimentation is evident throughout the rest of her career.

‘Variantes II (Variants II)’ by Mira Schendel is part of Hauser & Wirth’s presentation at Art Basel, from 13 – 16 June 2019.