Despite being baptized and raised as a Catholic, the Swiss-born artist Mira Schendel was stripped of her Italian citizenship in 1938 and was forbidden to continue her philosophy studies because of her Jewish heritage. Having been forced into an itinerant and stateless existence, she eventually settled in Brazil in 1949. Upon her arrival there, Schendel settled in Porto Alegre, where she found herself detached from the bustling art centers of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. When she moved to São Paulo in 1953, her works differed from those of her contemporaries, a fact that attracted the interest of local critics, but also initiated a period of crisis for Schendel’s art. In the following years she withdrew from the art scene and produced very few works.
Her return to art in 1962 marked a turning point in her painterly development, when she created a first set of works on rice paper, a translucent, fragile material that would dominate her later work. Schendel also created a series of abstract canvases incorporating circular and oval forms in dark, earthy tones. In order to achieve a textured finish, she used both oil and tempera paints, mixing them with a variety of materials such as sand, polymer, the red earth of the São Paulo region, and, as in Untitled (1963), with plaster. The subtle tonal combinations and the integration of natural materials imbue this series with a distinct sensibility that invites the viewer’s subjective interpretation, oscillating between the spiritual and the desolate. The prominent Brazilian physicist Mario Schenberg (1914–1999), who saw in Schendel’s paintings an affinity with the concept of the void, described them in terms of “transcendence” and “immanence.”
Mira Schendel, best known for her drawings on rice paper, is considered one of the most influential Latin American artists of her time. In 1922 after her parents’ divorce, her mother moved to Milan, where Schendel later studied philosophy. Because of her Jewish ancestry she was forced to abandon her studies, and during World War II (1939–1944) she fled Italy and moved to Sarajevo. After the war she lived in Rome until 1949, when she received permission to settle in Porto Alegre. There she studied life drawing and sculpture and made paintings and ceramics. Her first solo exhibition, in 1950, included portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. In 1953 she moved to São Paulo, where she met many other émigré intellectuals. From the 1960s onward Schendel developed a spare artistic language of geometric forms and linguistic elements. She preferred ephemeral, translucent materials as well as paint, talc, brick dust, ink, and watercolors. In 1964 she began her famous monotype drawings on Japanese rice paper: she first inked a sheet of glass, traced free-floating lines into it with her finger, and then pulled a rice paper “print.” She also created three-dimensional objects (Droguinhas) with knotted and intertwined rice paper.