View of “Mira Schendel,” 2013–14.

View of “Mira Schendel,” 2013–14.

Mira Schendel

View of “Mira Schendel,” 2013–14.

Brazilian artist Mira Schendel visited the UK only once during her lifetime, on the occasion of an exhibition of her work in London in 1966. She found the city surprisingly receptive to her artistic practice, contrasting the buzzing opening reception to the silence that had greeted another of her shows in Rio earlier that year. But although Schendel felt her early work had a “more resounding effect in England than in Rio de Janeiro,” her work has been most extensively shown and discussed within Brazil. Curated by Tanya Barson and Taisa Palhares, this exhibition was the largest international retrospective of her work to date, beginning in London before traveling to Porto, Portugal, and São Paulo. In addition to her celebrated works of the mid- to late 1960s, the curators privileged her early paintings, which are not well known.

The exhibition began with the still lifes the Swiss-born Schendel produced after settling in São Paulo in 1953. The subdued palette and softly modeled forms of these paintings owe much to Giorgio Morandi, while the skewed geometries of the untitled tempera works that she turned to next chimed nicely with the Paul Klee show on view concurrently at Tate Modern. Only in the ’60s did Schendel’s distinctive voice emerge, in the arresting series of abstractions that were shown in the third room at Tate Modern. The striking, elemental forms and insistent materiality of these paintings mark her contribution to Concrete art while manifesting a concern with ontological and phenomenological questions prompted by her engagement with Heideggerian philosophy.

In the “Monotipias” (Monotypes), 1964–74, delicate leaves of rice paper were laid over oiled glass and scratched with a point or fingernail, causing the oil to adhere to the paper. In a breathtaking room at Tate Modern, some thirty-four of these works were shown pressed between acrylic sheets and suspended parallel to the wall, casting shadowy lines and forms upon its surface. Inscribed on the rice paper were quavering drawings, cryptic diagrams, and itinerant handwriting that drifted restlessly between languages and styles. Emphatically graphic, these works exploit the proximity of drawing and writing, prefiguring the “Objetos gráficos” (Graphic Objects) Schendel exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1968, an installation reprised in the seventh room of the exhibition. Here, handwritten and transferred letters, abstract marks, and mathematical notations were applied to both sides of large rice-paper squares, which were sandwiched between acrylic sheets and hung in the center of the room. The paper appeared to dissolve as the light shone through it, freeing the inscriptions to dart and swarm like so many “alphabees,” as the poet Haroldo de Campos evocatively called them.

While the “Monotipias” and “Objetos gráficos” allow drawn lines and textual fragments to be viewed in the round, Schendel’s sculptural works treat paper itself as a dynamic, motile material. In the “Droguinhas” (Little Nothings), ca. 1965–66, rice paper is twisted and knotted into intestinal coils suspended from the ceiling, while the “Trenzinhos” (Little Trains), ca. 1965, feature sheets of the same material hung from a line, fluttering with the slightest movement. “Cadernos” (Notebooks), 1971, are also made of translucent paper, which allows figures to drift and coalesce in the limpid depths of their stratified pages.

Schendel’s work of the 1980s feels more monumental, but—paradoxically—less significant than her earlier output. Her paintings in gold leaf and tempera on wood echo the formal elegance of her early work, but their very resolution and permanence makes them seem less volatile than those thrilling experiments. In the “Sarrafos” (Battens), 1986–87, with which the show concluded, beams of wood painted black jut forcefully from large white panels into three-dimensional space. But despite the aggressive power of these works, the real impact of the show lay in subtler effects, such as the diaphaneity of rice paper, or the charged scrape of Schendel’s fingernail across its delicate surface.

Anna Lovatt