Mira Schendel: Portrait of a Brazilian Artist

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, November 2013)

Myrra Dagmar Dub, known as Mira Schendel (1919-1988), was a Brazilian artist. Born in Zurich, to parents of Jewish heritage, Schendel was raised in Italy as a catholic and studied philosophy at the Catholic University in Milan. In 1938, she was displaced of her Italian nationality and forced to end her study. After traveling across many countries in 1949, she arrived in Brazil where she began her career as an artist.

She said of her arrival there, “I started painting in Brazil. Life was very hard, there was no money for paints, but I used to buy cheap materials and paint like crazy. It was a matter of life or death for me.”

In fact, in order to make a living, she worked as a graphic designer producing posters, illustrations, and book covers. She drew inspiration from artists such as Giorgio Morandi, Giorgio de Chirico, and Paul Klee. Her work constitutes an experimental investigation into profound philosophical questions relating to human existence and belief, addressing the distinction between faith and certainty, being and nothingness, and the “void.”The painting of the 1960s are characterized by a move towards geometry. Schendel remarked, “No matter how much I use geometric shapes, the sensory element of the brushstroke, the texture, is always there; for me this is very important. I would never make a completely smooth painting.”Interestingly, spiral motifs recur in all her oeuvre. Often compared to Archimedean spirals which describe, in mathematical terms, the unending spiral recession of a point in time and space, away from fixed point. Schendel also started a series of works using semi-transparent rice paper in 1964, investigating themes of transparency and language by the use of letters as graphic elements.Her most enigmatic works are The Return of Achilles (1964) and Apologia pro vita sua (1974), both with reference to the Homer’s epic poem the Iliad.

 Although little-known outside Brazil, Mira Schendel remains a unique and influential figure in twentieth-century art.

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