Lygia Pape's (1927–2004) work developed in the vortex of change and confrontation that Brazil has witnessed since 1945. The country has seen economic expansion on a massive scale; millions of people have been sucked into rapidly expanding urban centres. Immense wells of poverty and destitution exist next to the obscene caprice and rapacious greed of the ruling elites.
The time in which Pape lived was also marked by the intensity and ferocity of the class struggle. The ruling elite brutally attempted to maximise the rate of exploitation in order to obtain maximum growth, but came up against a rapidly expanding working class. Dictatorship, cruel and brutal military rule, followed by rising dreams and hopes of democracy clashed against neo-liberal economic dictates.
There is not space here to develop a discussion of Pape's artistic development, from its absorption of trends in early 20th century Europe to the creation of her own distinct and compelling visual language. It will suffice to say that Pape and many of her contemporaries did not stand aside from Brazil's turmoil. They sought, often in very difficult conditions, to develop a visual language that expressed and criticised the developments they saw around them. As Pape herself said, "Art is my way of understanding the world." Sue Hubbard has written that Pape's work is "political, extreme and iconoclastic and belongs to a period when art was far less about making an object of desire for exchange or consumption...Her work mirrors the utopian aspirations of the times in which she lived."
This exhibition is not a comprehensive survey of Pape's work. Many of the more political works are absent, but it is well worth visiting, even if only to see a version of "Ttéia 1, C (Web)", first exhibited in 1976. Constructed from copper wire, wood and nails, enclosed in a blacked-out room and partially lit from above, this is surely one of the most moving, evocative and thoughtful pieces 20th century art.
Magnetized Space is on at the Serpentine Gallery until 19 February