MIRA SCHENDEL: Sarrafos and Black and White Worksby David Rhodes
HAUSER & WIRTH | SEPTEMBER 7 – OCTOBER 21, 2017
Mira Schendel was born Myra Dagma Dub in 1919. A Jew by birth, Schendel’s mother had her daughter baptized at the Church of St Peter and Paul, raising her in Milan as a Roman Catholic where she studied art and philosophy. None of this prevented Schendel from being stripped of her Italian citizenship as a person with Jewish bloodlines by Fascist Italy, before being hounded around Europe—after living in Bulgaria, Austria, then living out most of the war in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. After the war she worked for the International Refugee Organization in Rome then left for Brazil in 1949.. After finally settling in Sao Paulo in 1953 she discovered a thriving artistic and intellectual scene, one that she soon became an important member of. The group that welcomed her included the Czech born philosopher Wilem Flusser and the Brazilian Jewish physicist Mário Schenberg. Sometime in the early 1960s Schenberg gave Schendel some rice paper as a gift.
Included in the works on paper presented here are several pieces in china ink or crayon on rice paper, dating from 1964 to 1965. Are these sheets amongst the one’s that were given by Schenberg? Untitled, (ca.1964-1965) is less than 11 by 9 inches in size, two Xs overlap each other, one larger and to the left of the other. Below them a fainter horizontal is lightly inked. The lines are sensitive, fragile, vulnerable—and also dynamic, in motion as if running. A much later work from 1986—in crayon on rice paper—comprises two separately framed sheets; one contains a vertical line, the other a horizontal line. As lean as they are they evince a sureness of placement that activates the whole sheet as a volume that could be imagined as the principle of relation between verticality and horizontality. The lines are direct and clear—the crayon on the surface of the rice paper, pitch perfect. All the works on paper in the exhibition stay within a range of blacks and whites, greys and creams, that vary from stark to warm.
Works from the “Brancos e Pretos” series, 1985 to 1987, precede the “Sarrafo” series of this exhibition’s title. Although appearing completely flat from a distance the “Brancos e Pretos” are in face subtle low reliefs. The simplicity of a single mark or line in these works becomes in the “Sarrafo” works a physical three dimensional line that reaches out from the surface like the raised section of a sun dial and similarly casts a very noticeable shadow as a formal aspect of each piece. Schendel said that she regarded the “Sarrafos” as successfully “aggressive” a response to the socio-political situation that Schendel was living through. After Getúlio Varges’ populist presidency had opened the possibility of democratic government and increased industrialization in Brazil—pushing back the powerful agrarian oligarchs that had wielded great influence—it was brought to a swift end by the right-wing military coup of 1965 that had been foreseen as almost inevitable since Vargas ended his own life in 1954 (Schendel had arrived in Brazil remember in 1953) By the late 1980s protests against this military dictatorship were causing painful upheavals. Schendel herself described it as a “Tropical Weimar.” To be so displaced in life because of political extremism, intolerance and brutal government in Europe only to find such phenomena virulently present many years later is a warning to us all about the contingencies of democracies. The austerely sensual and inventive works here are testament to a life amongst poets, physicists, artists and philosophers that embodied resistance to denigrating and dangerous government.
DAVID RHODES is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.