Untitled (Genesis) comprises a row of nine rectangular leaves of thin off-white paper held between two sets of horizontally oriented plastic sheets, with five leaves appearing in one sheet and four in the other. The pieces of paper feature shapes and handwritten words in Portuguese, English and French. The first sheet in the left hand panel shows a small cluster of words forming a circle; in the second, words such as ‘vazia’ (Portuguese for ‘empty’) are similarly clustered but less tightly bound to a circle formation; in the third, the words ‘dia’ (Portuguese for ‘day’) and ‘write’ appear above and below a horizontal line; in the fourth, a block of handwriting sits at the bottom edge of the paper while at the top edge is written the Portuguese word ‘ceus’ (‘heavens’); and in the fifth, the artist’s rough script is inscribed along a line at a forty-five degree angle. In the first of the group of monotypes located in the right hand panel, Schendel has drawn a large circle with a smaller circle to its bottom right, with loose text in three clusters appearing around and between the circles; in the second, a block of text is covered with a wave-like scribble; in the third is a phrase in a thick capitalised font with smaller text above and below it; and on the final sheet are two vertically aligned texts connected by a downward-pointing arrow, separated from the rest of the page by a curved line, outside of which floats a gestural scrawl of writing. Schendel’s fingerprints are visible on each of the pieces of paper and they have all been signed ‘Mira 1965’ at the bottom right hand corner. When the work is exhibited, fishing wire is used to hang the two plastic forms side by side at roughly eye level and slightly away from the wall, so that they appear to be floating.
Untitled (Genesis) was made by the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1965. The work belongs to Schendel’s Monotypes series that consists of more than two thousand works on paper produced from 1964 to 1967. For this series Schendel developed a ‘transfer drawing’ process that involved covering a glass or acrylic surface with oil paint before laying a sheet of paper over it and then tracing lines, writing and symbols with her fingertips or a tool to make the gestural impressions seen in the final work. Schendel used this technique in many of her works on paper, regarding the marks left by this ‘movement of the hand’ as traces of the artist’s body (Schendel in Barson and Palhares 2013, p.202). In Untitled (Genesis), each sheet of paper has been glued to the plastic along its top edge and pinned to it at the paper’s upper left and upper right corners.
The Monotypes were created in a number of small groups over the course of 1964–7 and for the cluster of which Untitled (Genesis) is a part Schendel began using the shapes formed by language to investigate its materiality and its origin. The title of the work is therefore not only a direct reference to the Biblical creation story that is alluded to in some of the handwritten words on the paper – such as in the eighth sheet, the text on which translates from the Portuguese as: ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness’ – but also to the structures of language we absorb during our lifetime. Schendel has described the Monotypes as ‘the result of a hitherto frustrated attempt to capture discourse at its moment of origin … in a text predating the literal and logical’ (Schendel in Pérez-Oramas 2009, p.28).
Born in Switzerland a Jew, but raised in Italy a Catholic, Schendel left Europe for Brazil in 1949, settling in São Paulo four years later. These years of geographical and religious displacement might explain the artist’s multilingual presentation of the creation story in Untitled (Genesis). However, while Schendel has explored themes relating to Catholicism in several of her works, this is always contextualised by philosophical approaches such as the language games of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and the Chinese mysticism of the ancient I Ching.
It was in São Paulo that Schendel met Haroldo de Campos, one of the founders of Brazilian Concrete Poetry, and as a consequence became interested in the written word as an object and image, independent of its conventional expressive or communicative capabilities. Such ideas are reflected in Untitled (Genesis), in which the transparency of the paper and plastic, along with its hanging method of display, means that the viewer experiences the work in three-dimensional space and reads its words in no specific order.
Untitled (Genesis) was first exhibited in a retrospective exhibition of Schendel’s work in Rio de Janeiro in 1966 and was displayed again later that year at Signals Gallery in London.
Chris Fite-Wassilak, ‘Mira Schendel’, Frieze, no.125, September 2009, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/mira_schendel/, accessed 5 December 2014.
Luiz Pérez-Oramas, León Ferrari and Mira Schendel: Tangled Alphabets, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2009.
Tanya Barson and Taisa Palhares (eds.), Mira Schendel, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2013, pp.12, 23, reproduced pp.112–13.
Supported by Christie’s.