On the occasion of the centenary of Swiss-Brazilian artist Mira Schendel’s birth (she was born on June 7, 1919), Henry Alsopp, the director of Hauser & Wirth London, visited her daughter Ada and grandson Max. Over the course of two days, they discussed Schendel’s courage during World War II, the challenges she faced during a difficult childhood, and the travails of immigrating to Brazil – experiences that informed her independent and solitary artistic path. The story arrived in my inbox during Art Basel earlier this month. Readers should find this excerpt as compelling as I did.
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.
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
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.
HA: Thinking a bit more broadly about her place in society, how did she see her position in a male-dominated art world?
MS: 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.
For the complete conversation at the Hauser & Wirth website, click here.
‘Variantes II (Variants II)’ by Mira Schendel was part of Hauser & Wirth’s presentation at Art Basel, from 13 – 16 June 2019.