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Louise Underhill HTS Year 4 Mark Cousins


Mira Schendel and the Language of Drawing At the dawn of civilisation, when writing and drawing were the same thing, [the line] was the basic element.1 Paul Klee Through archaeological finds we know that the modern brain started to develop just over 100,000 years ago2 with an attempt at communication – the line, carved into a surface. This manually made mark, as Klee describes, was the first component of both writing and drawing and there was no distinction between the two, it was only the start of a form of communication. I want to explore in this essay the relationship between drawing and language as ways of communication, and to look examine ways of drawing using language, in particular in the work of Brazilian artist Mira Schendel, the subject of a current exhibition at the Tate Modern. Anthropologist Tim Ingold wrote that: So long as writing is understood in its original sense as a practice of inscription, there cannot be any hard-and-fast distinction between drawing and writing, or between the craft of the draughtsman and that of the scribe.3 I want to explore to what extent drawing and writing act together in Schendel’s work as modes of communication and to look at the ways in which her works convey something to the viewer, and at the same time, what it is that they are trying to communicate.

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Paul Klee, 1961, Notebooks Vol. 1: The Thinking Eye, quoted in Tim Ingold, 2007, “Drawing, Writing and Calligraphy” in Lines, A Brief History (pp 120-151) Routledge 2 Retrieved December 13th 2013 from World Wide Web https://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/press_releases/2012/ice_age_art.aspx 3 Tim Ingold, 2007, “Introduction” in Lines, A Brief History (pp 1-5) Routledge


Mira Schendel, Graphic Objects installation, 1967-73

On visiting the Mira Schendel exhibition I was greatly moved by seeing and experiencing her artworks. The exhibition progresses through her body of work, starting with abstract, textural paintings and developing into her works exploring themes of transparency and language and philosophical questions of human existence and belief. I was particularly affected by the installation of her works Graphic Objects (Objetos Grafico) that consists of large-scale (between 50cm and 1 metre square) drawings on rice paper, suspended from the ceiling and hanging in the gallery space, filtering light through them. The drawings are made up only of text. Of typed, drawn, painted and transferred letters. These letters emerge like figures from the seemingly glowing paper.

Mira Schendel, Graphic Object, 1967

The layers of rice paper are held between Perspex sheets. This enables light to move softly through the paper, lifting the letters further from the surface of the work and out into the surrounding space. The Perspex enables the works to be viewed from both sides, and the viewer is able to move around and between the separate pieces. By doing this the text can be viewed from multiple positions, the definition between front and back is dissolved where the letters can become reversed, and in a sense unreadable. Whilst Schendel is using the components of language in her work, in many of the Graphic Objects the letters appear on the page in jumbled and layered arrangements, there is no clear reading, no clear sense to be made. CauĂŞ Alves


describes in the Tate publication accompanying the exhibition that Schendel’s use of language is far removed from any denotation or explanation, but is actually an attempt to penetrate meanings, to bore into an imaginary world that predates language itself, a world of nascent meaning, a whorl of meanings.4 The Graphic Objects are taking us back to a time before language, a time of the mark as the tool of communication, where drawing and writing were indistinguishable. In many of the Graphic Objects the letters become just this, marks made on the paper. There is a sense that in the series of these accumulated marks there is the intent to communicate something, but the meaning is unclear, it is only just starting to emerge.

Mira Schendel, Graphic Object, 1967

In some of the Graphic Objects Schendel does not only use the mark or figure of the letter but uses sections of text: notes by her friend, German philosopher, Max Bense, along with poetry and Samba lyrics. Here, too the text can be read through the paper, from the front or back, and this, combined with a layering of sheets of paper and text, starts to disrupt the reading of the words contained within the work. In these pieces the emphasis becomes much more about the composition of the work. A sense of meaning and of understanding can be formed through the                                                                                                               4 Cauê Alves, 2013, “Mira Schendel in Dialogue with Vilem Flusser: Language and Reality” in Tania Barson and Taisa Palhares ed. Mira Schendel (pp 33-39) Tate Publishing


arrangements of the different texts in relation to each other, the distance between each piece, held in space within the sheets of perspex. This emptiness creates space for pause, a void in the reading. The surroundings of the piece, the gallery, visitors and the other Graphic Objects, start to come into view through the perspex, to play a part in the reading of the object. There are parallels to be drawn between these works by Mira Schendel and Concrete Poetry, where poems start to take on a shape and the arrangements of the words on the page play a fundamental part in the reading of the work. The term Concrete Poetry was introduced by Swiss poet Eugen Gomringer and described a poem which was “an object to be seen and used … a reality in itself and not a poem about something or other.”5

Stephane Mallarmé, double-page spread from the 1914 edition of Un coup de Dés

Un Coup de Dés (A Throw of the Dice) by Stephane Mallarmé uses the white of the page and the arrangement, font and size of the text as integral to the reading of the poem, the text scattered across the page, as dice tumbling through space. The poem is described by Walter Ong as: a kind of typographical free-fall suggesting the chance that rules a throw of dice […] Mallarme’s declared objective is to ‘avoid narrative’ and ‘space out’ the reading of the poem so that the page, with its typographic spaces, not the line, is the unit of verse.6 This is also true of Schendel’s works. Whilst there is the possibility to read some of the text, instead the viewer is encouraged to look past what is written, and to instead read the spaces of silence in between. The content of the text is contained                                                                                                               5

Retrieved December 13th 2013 from World Wide Web http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tateliverpool/exhibition/ian-hamilton-finlay-and-wild-hawthorn-press-1958-91 6 Walter J Ong, 1982, “Print, Space and Closure” in Orality & Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word (pp 117-138) Routledge


within the work, but it is not what defines its meaning; this is made up of emptiness, light, structure, composition and the subtleties and translucencies of rice paper.

Mira Schendel, Untitled from the series Monotypes, 1965

The relationship between Schendel’s work and Concrete Poetry is clear in many of her other pieces and series, in particular, the Monotypes (Monotipias). These are a series of works where words are scrawled onto pages, sometimes one word to a page, sometimes a series of dissociated words. They are written in a variety of languages, often multiple languages within one page, playing with how they might be read or misread, and removing importance from the literal translation of the meanings of the words. Schendel’s friend Max Bense, whose notes featured in the Graphic Objects, wrote extensively on the theory of Concrete Poetry. He observed that the relationship with Schendel’s work to Concrete Poetry was evident in the spatial and imagistic use of writing […] in visual texts that moved in a two-dimensional field in which letters and words were converted into events on the plane that were no longer about the line, and whose ‘graphic reduction’ […] ‘suspends linguistic structure in favour of pictorial structure’.7 Through the use of ‘pictorial structure’, Schendel starts to communicate something beyond the words themselves. She composes the text like she would a drawing or painting, creating movement and moments of intensity on the surface of the paper.

                                                                                                              7 Taisa Palhares, 2013, “Living In Between: Mira Schendel’s Poetics” in Tania Barson and Taisa Palhares ed. Mira Schendel (pp 9-17) Tate publishing


Mira Schendel, Graphic Object, 1973

In contrast to Schendel’s works using words and texts, many of her pieces utilise only the letter, removed from its association with a word and further reading. “The letter and sign become opaque, intensely physical volumes.”8 They seem to both emerge from the page and move within it. The letters become their own body, an object on the page. This sense of the letter as an object also occurs with the introduction of printing. With the letterpress, each letter is cast into its own individual piece of metal and becomes an object in its own right, separated from the association with the words that it can be used to form. The letter becomes the component, with the potential to take on meaning when put to use. In Schendel’s works I believe that the same occurs, the letters are filled with the possibilities of words and meanings, they suggest the opportunity for thought and language, to be interpreted by the viewer. Walter Ong comments on the letterpress, and the distinction that should be drawn with writing. He writes the letters used in writing do not exist before the text in which they occur. With alphabetic letterpress print it is otherwise. Words are made out of units (types) which pre-exist as units before the words which they will constitute. Print suggests that words are things far more than writing ever did.9                                                                                                               8

Cauê Alves, 2013, “Mira Schendel in Dialogue with Vilem Flusser: Language and Reality” in Tania Barson and Taisa Palhares ed. Mira Schendel (pp 33-39) Tate Publishing 9 Walter J Ong, 1982, “Print, Space and Closure” in Orality & Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word (pp 117-138) Routledge


In the act of writing, the letters only come into being as the words are put down and meaning unfolds onto the page. Whilst the individual components in a letterpress hold within them potential for meaning, as the letters in Mira Schendel’s work do, once put to use that potential in the letterpress is somehow lost, tied to the predetermined word. Writing is an integral element of the work of Cy Twombly. He would often take existing texts, phrases or poems and incorporate them into his artworks. For Twombly it is essential that the text be written by hand. Art critic Richard Shiff wrote in the catalogue accompanying the Tate exhibition of Twombly’s work in 2008: With handwriting, Twombly could feel his way through a text, that is, a thought. But the thought did not exist for him before he spelled it out. An array of pre-existing graphic signs, the printed text, no longer conveyed the meaning; it now derived from a manual act of writing that created its own signs, a handwriting that functioned as a mode of drawing.10 This echoes the idea of the words only coming into being as they are written. For Twombly, whilst the words might already exist in print, the true meaning and thoughts depicted by the words did not come into existence until he had manually inscribed them on the page.

Cy Twombly, Cold Stream, 1966

I believe that in this same way Mira Schendel’s writing acts as drawing, and that through “drawing” her letters and words she too creates her own signs. These                                                                                                               10 Richard Shiff, 2008, “Charm” in Nicholas Serota ed. Cy Twombly, Cycles and Seasons (pp 10-31) Tate Publishing


signs, or marks, change the way in which what is written can be interpreted, and opens up new possibilities for understanding. For Tim Ingold, as for Ong, “it was the technology of print that broke this intimate link between manual gesture and graphic inscription.”11 He continues The end of writing, I believe, was heralded by a radical change in the perception of the surface from something akin to a landscape that one moves through, to something more like a screen that one looks at12 In Twombly’s art, as in Schendel’s, the surface becomes absolutely something that the viewer moves through. The use of handwriting brings a very physical element to the work of both artists. The viewer is transported across the canvas or paper, through marks and letters and words, led in different directions and through different interpretations. Instead of reading off the page, taking the words at face value, the viewer can read into the page, searching for meanings within it.

Mira Schendel, Graphic Object, 1967-8

When making a distinction between printed and handwritten forms of language it is of great importance to consider the manual gesture. This is especially significant when talking about the mark making of Mira Schendel and Cy Twombly. When an artwork contains within it the record of a gesture, such as Jackson Pollock’s sweeping movement across a canvas recorded in the drops of paint, it is making a record of the hand, and of the body, of the artist. With Pollock the paint on the canvas traces the movement, the speed, the direction, the scale and the physicality of the gesture that went into creating it, it is a direct trace of himself.                                                                                                               11 12

Tim Ingold, 2007, “Language, Music and Notation” in Lines, A Brief History (pp 6-38) Routledge Tim Ingold, 2007, “Language, Music and Notation” in Lines, A Brief History (pp 6-38) Routledge


Mira Schendel has said in whatever kind of art, even the most abstract, or in architecture, we always have this second category of corporeality that will engage the disposition of each person’s body […] Art that completely covers this texture, this movement of the hand, is extremely wrong. I give the utmost importance to it being manual like this, that it be handmade, that it be experienced13 All of Schendel’s work comes from the gesture of her hand on the surface. In the Graphic Objects many of the works are made up of a huge amount of hand written, or should that be hand drawn, letters. Each letter, each mark, becomes a trace of her movement and of the expressive gesture that went into making it. Similarly the handwriting in Twombly’s paintings and drawings seem to come directly from himself, the movement of his own hand is captured, the fluidity with which he creates his artworks. Twombly writes as if he were seeking out the meaning of the poetic words through the physical act of producing their graphic signs. The word as disembodied sign becomes the word as embodied mark, imbued with the spirit of a gesture and located in a particular place and time.14 He draws the words rather than writes them, discovering, as he moves his hand over the surface, an unfolding meaning. The line, the mark, the words in Twombly’s works all have a dynamism and energy which has originated from the initial act of inscribing them. Though once the act of drawing has finished the lines can no longer physically move or develop on the page, they still hold within them a sense of potential for movement, a feeling that they could continue and unfold into new words, a sense of the potential for new meanings and thoughts to emerge from the work. This is absolutely the feeling emanating from Schendel’s works with handwriting. The gestural marks accumulate on the page, suggesting a development of thought and communication beyond what is inscribed. As Cauê Alves writes “Mira’s work emerges from the originary and primordial expression of the body. It is the corporeal gesture begotten by calligraphy and writing.”15

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Mira Schendel, 1981, “Interview with Mira Schendel, Mira Schendel, Painter: Empty Space Moves Me Deeply” in Tania Barson and Taisa Palhares ed. Mira Schendel (pp 198-207) Tate Publishing 14 Richard Shiff, 2008, “Charm” in Nicholas Serota ed. Cy Twombly, Cycles and Seasons (pp 10-31) Tate Publishing   15 Cauê Alves, 2013, “Mira Schendel in Dialogue with Vilem Flusser: Language and Reality” in Tania Barson and Taisa Palhares ed. Mira Schendel (pp 33-39) Tate Publishing  


Mira Schendel, from the series Paisagem de Itatiaia, 1978

An association of Schendel’s work with calligraphy, especially Chinese calligraphy, is particularly interesting. Her series of works Itatiaia Landscape (Paisagem de Itatiaia) are made with a brush using ink on rice paper, along with series of strung together letter As which seem to move like bodies amongst the landscape. For the Chinese artist the same brush is used for writing as it is for drawing16. There is seemingly a parallel to when there was no distinction between writing and drawing, when both started with the line. The act of drawing and the act of writing in Chinese art and calligraphy are blurred, as in the work of Mira Schendel. The brush enables expressive strokes to travel across the page, leading the viewer on a journey through the works. The figures of the As in Schendel’s work punctuate the landscape but also offer the suggestion of some other potential meaning. Perhaps the most physical expression of language is that of the signed language of the deaf. This is communicated solely through manual gesture. Ingold writes “As the example of signed language shows […] looking at words can be every bit as active, dynamic and participatory as listening to them.”17 If writing can capture the trace of the artist’s movement on the page then it draws parallels with sign language, and the gesture, movement and most importantly the expression which has gone into making it, and therefore the experience of understanding becomes something entirely different. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in the preface to his book Tractatus LogicoPhilosophiucs that what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence. Thus the aim […] is to draw a limit to thought, or rather-not to thought, but to the expression of thought.                                                                                                               16

Anne Farrer, 1990, “Calligraphy, The Art of Writing” in The Brush Dances and the Ink Sings (pp 1113) South Bank Centre 17 Tim Ingold, 2007, “Language, Music and Notation” in Lines, A Brief History (pp 6-38) Routledge


It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense.18 He expresses that there is a limit to language, beyond which we cannot communicate, and that beyond this is nonsense. In some ways Schendel’s works, with their jumbles and tangles of letters and words express this nonsense, a sense of thoughts that cannot quite be expressed through words alone. Schendel, herself, describes her works as ‘the result of a hitherto frustrated attempt to capture discourse at its moment of origin’19. For her it is about the nonsense before the formulation of modes of communication. Mira Schendel’s work is situated both at the start of language and the limit of language, but through the textures, the gestures, light, scale and materiality it leaves the possibility to speak of something just beyond language.

Bibliography: Books: Tim Ingold, Lines, A Brief History, Routledge Tania Barson and Taisa Palhares ed., Mira Schendel, Tate Publishing Walter J Ong, The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge Nicholas Serota ed., Cy Twombly, Cycles and Seasons, Tate Publishing Anne Farrer, The Brush Dances and the Ink Sings, South Bank Centre Internet: https://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/press_releases/2012/ice_ age_art.aspx http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/ian-hamilton-finlay-andwild-hawthorn-press-1958-91

                                                                                                              Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1918 “Preface” in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (pp 3-4) Routledge   Mira Schendel quoted in John Rajchman, 2013, “Mira Schendel’s Immanence” ” in Tania Barson and Taisa Palhares ed. Mira Schendel (pp 49-59) Tate Publishing 18 19

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Mira Schendel and the Language of Drawing  

Louise Underhill History and Theory Studies Diploma Architectural Association

Mira Schendel and the Language of Drawing  

Louise Underhill History and Theory Studies Diploma Architectural Association

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