Just as when Europe and the North America dominated the Western art scene for ages, Chilean-born Roberto Matta came into the scene giving a fresh and innovative Surrealist art for the whole industry to see. However, his popularity also came with critical judgments from esteemed critics such as Clement Greenberg and Patrick Waldberg. The latter even made a satirical comment on Matta’s emergence as “And finally, there was Matta… whose equal surrealism was never to find again”.
On the contrary, Victor Hugo seemed to have received Matta’s art with positive judgment describing it as “The light had made of all that shadow suddenly come to life, something like a mask that becomes a face. Everywhere gold, scarlet, avalanches of rubies, a rustling of flames. One would have said that dawn had suddenly set fire to this world of darkness.” His works are pioneering.
Roberto Matta was born in Chile and has since became one of the most famous South American artists of the 20th century. He specialized in surrealism and abstract expressionism, but is more known for his surrealist art than anything else. Matta was introduced to Andre Breton and his group through the Spanish painter, Salvador Dali. However, a disagreement between him and Arshile Gorky led to his debarment from the group, after which he traveled across Europe and South America exposing himself to the political situation of several countries which he used as an inspiration to most of his works during the 1960’s through the 1970’s.
Examples of Matta’s highly valuable paintings include The Three Figures (1958), Elle Loge La Folie (1970), Panama and Wet Sheets (1936), Ne Songe Plus a Fuir and Les Roses Sont Belles (1950), Sick Flesh (1933), Morphologie de la Gaite, Logos Men and Artificial Lucidity (1983), Leaving Your Grass (1993), Blanche ou Fleur (1999), and Chaosmos (2002).
Roberto Sebastian Antonio Matta Echaurren was born in 11th of November 1911 in Santiago, Chile. His family was of French, Basque and Spanish descent. Little is known about his boyhood but his interest in art began to take shape when he studied architecture and decorative arts in a catholic university in the capital. He had then received his bachelor’s degree by 1935 and decided to pursue a career in architecture somewhere in both Peru and Panama.
Matta’s early works consisted mainly of surrealist-inspired drawings, most of which were landscape images of the places he had been to. During his early 20’s he traveled a lot around Europe while working as a marine officer. He had also been gone to the United States, and along the way, met other notable artists like Salvador Dali, Arshile Gorky, Le Corbusier, and Rene Magritte.
Among other artists and intellectuals, Andre Breton came out to be the most influential to him. Breton served instrumental in giving Matta a direction in his career when he was still trying to fit in the European market. The said Surrealism leader did encourage him to pursue a lot of things, especially leadership-wise, as he was recruited to become a member of the movement. From then on, the Chilean-native created articles and covers for a number of journals dedicated to Surrealism such as the Minotaure.
By working for various Surrealist hournals he became exposed to the European art scene deeply. He was influenced by the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso while he stayed in Paris. It was only until 1938 when his career blossomed, when he shifted from producing illustrations to oil painting. And this decision would prove to be advantageous on his part for he became well-known for it.
When the Second World War broke out, Matta moved to the United States and was to remain there until 1948. During this period he produced paintings that depict great treatment of light and shadow such as in the Invasion of the Night. He used bold lines and diffused lighting effect to create a plain yet striking background. These works would eventually be known as the “inscape” and “psychological morphologies” series. An art professor from the Boston College, Claude Cernuschi, had described Matta’s art during this period, “Matta’s key ambition to represent and evoke the human psyche in visual form was filtered through the writings of Freud and psychoanalytic view of the mind as a three-dimensional space”.
In this period, Matta has already achieved global fame. He received a lot of critical judgment from various art critics. There was an essay on the artist published in one of the volumes of Crosscurrents of Modernism that talked about the inscape quality of his art. His paintings had been particularly evocative which showed his skillful use of analogies visually to represent a part of the human psyche.
Throughout the 1940’s, Roberto Matta found himself deeply connected with the world of politics. He may not be a politician but the political issues of his country and other places he stayed at affected him to the point that he used it as a subject and theme in his paintings. He often painted images of depressed human figures and images of machinery. At some point, he had also experimented with adding clay to his art works which made him an artist capable of including multidimensional elements in his fine works.
As he matured in the industry, his art also became more complex with its added dimensions. He typically used cosmic and organic life forms as a subject for such kind of paintings. Apparently, this somehow encouraged him to change his focus from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism. His took bio morphism as an interesting subject needed to be shown to the world.
One significant event in Matta’s life happened when he was expelled from the Surrealist group. It is said that he was involved in a controversy among Gorky’s family and Gorky himself. The controversy began when Matta was allegedly committing an extra marital affair with Gorky’s wife, which upon discovery, led to the suicide of the Surrealist painter and subsequently to the expulsion of Matta from the group. This was the time when he took it upon himself to travel around South America, US, and Europe while finding the time to paint the sceneries he had seen down the stretch.
Traveling across the different continents may have also inspired him to appreciate art and poetry more deeply. He believed that these two, through its compelling and evocative words and images, can change someone’s life dramatically. This affected him so much that he became an active social activist in Chile and a supporter of Salvador Allende throughout the 1970’s. As a matter of fact, he even executed a mural painting for the political leader which he titled The First Goal of the Chilean People, in a 4.24 meter size. The mural depicts the events that took place during the military take-over by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, overthrowing Salvador Allende.
However, it was only until 2005 when curators and officials have discovered the said mural painting. It was in good condition when recovered and was sold at $43,000. Today, the La Granja City Hall of Santiago city takes care of it.
As with many Surrealist painters of his time, Matta also had experimented with different forms of art such as videography, photography, and ceramic design. Although there has been little documents to support his experiences during his artistic experimentations. The most popular instances were when he was cared by Federico Garcia Lorca in 1934. He had also worked as a draughtsman to Le Corbusier from 1934 to 1937. Within this decade he learned a lot about the importance of discovering himself as an independent artist to be able to pull of an edgy and unique personality.
Robert Motherwell would also play a significant role in Roberto Matta’s life for he inspired him to study dynamic surrealism. This particular style helped the artist approach painting in a more articulate way, which he did so. As a result, Motherwell had described Matta as “the most energetic, enthusiastic, poetic, charming, brilliant young artist that I’ve ever met.” During the 1940’s, Matta would prove to be an influential artist and yet again, Motherwell would attest to it by saying that “Matta gave me a 10-year education in surrealism.” These very words have had inspired Matta to be a visionary all his life instead of just painting for the sake of earning a penny.
William Baziotes was one of the few artists who have adopted Matta’s artistic style and influence. It was the Chilean painter who introduced Baziotes to his fellow Surrealists such as Hans Hofmann, Gorky, and Willem de Kooning. Matta had also come to know Jackson Pollock, who listened to his views about Peggy Guggenheim’s interest in accepting Surrealism as an art movement, and thus, maybe opening the Guggenheim Museum for Surrealist exhibitions. Pollock would become his new source of inspiration for techniques, themes and styles and learning these helped him become a better painter.
During the Nazi regime, some of his friends had died of execution. He never took the holocaust lightly and he managed to escape the brutality of those fascists. He even went onto painting scenes inspired by the Vietnam War and portrayed how people struggled against war atrocities. Sometime in the 1930’s Matta joined the communist party for he sympathized with the poor and the proletariat. However, he instead used his artistic sensibilities to illustrate these events instead of actively plotting manifestos and actions.
Roberto Matta died on November 23, 2002 in Civitavecchia, Italy, at the age of 91.