In Japan rice paper is used as a medium for the art of calligraphy. This art form is part of Zen practices, including the tea ceremony and the fighting arts. Calligraphy is not just about writing or producing beautiful ideograms; it goes beyond that to express a sense of melancholy and loneliness. Each line is purposeful and empowered by sacred values that stimulate the mind and emotions, enabling a contemplation of the essence of reality and the search for eternal truth.
The painter, poet and sculptor Mira Schendel owned a stack of Japanese rice paper, but not knowing what to do with it, she left it aside. That is, until one day in 1964 when she met a woman who had mastered the technique of monotype. That meeting would forever change Schendel’s relationship with this material. It became the perfect medium for her most profound sentiments. Much of the expression can be seen in the 138 drawings presented in this exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. These reveal here to be one of the greatest exponents of Latin American art in the 20th century.
The traditional technique of monotype consists of a print made from a metal or glass plate on which a picture is painted in oil or ink. Schendel’s monotypes, unlike those produced using the traditional method, are made by hand more like printed drawings. Alternating between using her fingernail, the side of her hand and a tool, she creates gentle lines, words and symbols on the fragile paper surface. The results are akin to a diary made of cloudy and vague memories.
The process also involves large doses of spontaneity and intuition, since the smallest mark on the paper instantly becomes permanent. Yet the artist skillfully controls the technique. In the ‘Architecture’ series, the artist’s intention appears to be to occupy the paper space and fill a void, while in ‘Arrows’ the mind is guided through paths and uncertain directions. The ‘Writings’ series is inspired by Stockhausen and embraces the structure of language.
The installations ‘Variantes II’ and ‘Trenzinho’ made in 1965 are suspended from the gallery ceiling and walls. They reveal even more intensely the delicacy and translucency of the rice paper evoking the idea of being and nothingness, concepts that consistently seem to hover over the artist’s work.
A Jewish wartime refugee from fascist Italy, Schendel (originally born in Zurich in 1919), passed through several countries before obtaining the papers necessary to facilitate her move to Brazil in 1949. During her life in Brazil she experienced the tense period marked by dictatorships and the vibrant explosion of strong artistic movements such as the Concrete and Neo-Concrete, though she did not participate in these.
Schendel passed away in 1988 leaving behind a great body of work typified by delicate gestures and traces of a vivid life. We have the feeling that her life may have been like her monotypes: a Zen journey full of elegant and strong parentheses, commas, words and crooked lines sliding down and over an ethereal surface.