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Mira Schendel

Meryl Doney

Tate Modern
Until January 19, 2014

Mira Schendel is a philosopher's artist. As her daughter Ada remembers, 'Rather than just talk art and art theory, Mira was interested in science, in philosophy, in religion; in considering the very essence of life, of being and nothingness. She was a deeply intellectual woman.'

Ada's claim is clearly demonstrated in this retrospective exhibition. Schendel died in 1988, but her concerns are very much of the moment. Her body of work is traced through still life, abstracts and graphic design, to work with text and texture, books and installations. I was new to her work, but the posters for the exhibition showed her free use of hand written text and that always gets my attention. I was not disappointed.

Schendel is an influential figure in 20th-century Brazilian art, but up to now has not been well known outside Brazil. This exhibition is part of Tate's continuing rethink of the history of modern and contemporary art by showing artists who established their careers outside Europe and the USA. It comprises over 270 paintings, drawings and sculptures, many of which have never been exhibited before.

Born Myrra Dagmar Dub in Zurich, to Jewish parents, she was brought up in Italy as a Catholic and studied philosophy at the Catholic University in Milan. However, as a person of Jewish heritage, in the volatile European political climate of 1939, she was stripped of her Italian nationality and forced to end her studies. As a refugee without documents she travelled through Europe, finally immigrating to arriving in Brazil in 1949.

Largely self-taught, and signing herself simply 'Mira', her early work includes abstracted forms derived from landscape and buildings in beautifully organic colours of black, brown, cream and ochre. It is clear that early inspiration came from artists like Paul Klee and Giorgio Morandi. But even her essay into geometric abstraction, influenced by Brazil's 'neo-concrete' movement, is subtly subverted - a shape slightly off centre, or the intrusion of human marks.

By 1953 Schendel had settled in São Paulo where she met her future husband Knut Schendel, a German émigré and proprietor of Canuto - an academic bookshop that became a centre for intellectual life in the city. Always interested in the philosophy of both east and west, Schendel became part of a wide-ranging intellectual circle and engaged in correspondence with intellectuals across Europe.

Schendel's interest in religion was deeply seated in her early upbringing. She read Wittgenstein and was influenced by the writings of British theologian John Henry Newman. In this period, text begins to appear in her work. One of the two paintings named The Return of Achilles includes a quotation from Newman. She was also influenced by the work by the master of contemporary Chinese painting, Chi Pai Shi, beginning a lifelong interest in Eastern religion and philosophy.

When a friend gave her a stack of rice paper, she found her most significant medium. Delicate and almost transparent, work on and with this paper gave the form she was seeking, to embody ideas of being and not being - the visibility of the invisible. As she said: 'while pursuing transparency as an issue I arrived at the object'.

In Schendel's work, transparency is a central metaphor. Here, made for the 10th Bienial de Sao Paulo in 1069, Still Waves of Probability - Old Testament, 1 Kings 19, is a shimmering square of nylon threads suspended from the ceiling, creating a dense yet translucent presence. Intriguingly, this work is accompanied by verses from the first Book of Kings, where God meets with Elijah, culminating in the words, 'and after the fire a still small voice'.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Homage to God - Father of the West, a series of 16 numbered sheets of paper, with biblical phrases in Portuguese, German and Italian. Here Schendel takes her use of text to the next level, embracing graffiti and street art to convey a crisis of faith, an artistic expression of what Ana describes as her 'fight with religion'.

This is not an easy show. It demands concentration. We are invited to observe the workings of an intelligent, complex and committed mind, an artist drawn to ideas and struggling with her religious and philosophical heritage. From these conflicting strands Schendel creates an art that is ephemeral yet enduring, abstract but moving, challenging yet deeply aesthetic. A philosopher and an artist.