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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Roberto Matta

Robert Matta, 1911-2002                                         
Have you ever come upon an artist whose work you instinctive like, but which you lack the least bit of understanding? Roberto Matta was a Chilean artist born in 1911. In terms of my own likings, Matta is one such artist. Almost without exception, Matta's work is exquisitely beautiful...perhaps gorgeous is a better word. Yet, very nearly all of Matta's work is non-representational, and normally I'm no great fan of Abstract Expressionism. (I can take it or leave it.) But if you're tastes mirror mine to any great degree, the paintings of Roberto Matta bear more than a cursory look. Dig into them visually, not hunting for recognizable content, but for the sheer pleasure of visual exhilaration. Matta's work is nothing if not exhilarating.
Labyrinth, 1982, Roberto Matta.
My own personal favorite from all of Matta's impressive oeuvre is Labyrinth (above) dating from 1982. I think it was the colors which first attracted me to it. However, as I got more and more involved with the intricacies of the work, I began to see myself lost in an art gallery maze, awash in some of my favorite hues and combinations, enjoying startling aesthetic surprises around every corner. Then as I explored dozens upon dozens of Matta's other, similar works, I began to feel different sensations, but in a similar manner. Matta invented a word for it: "Inscape." He painted landscapes existing in himself, hence...Inscapes. I suppose Matta wasn't the first and certainly not the last artist to explore the nooks and crannies of his own mind (that's practically a definition of Expressionism). The difference is, Matta did so with such beauty, grace, and finesse.

Wet Sheets, 1936, Roberto Matta 
Sick Flesh, 1932-33, Roberto Matta
I don't think I've ever written about a Chilean artist before. Roberto Matta was born in Santiago, Chile, of Spanish, Basque, and French descent, beginning his art education at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile studying architecture and interior design. He graduated in 1935 then headed north, up through Peru and Panama, painting and drawing as he went, selling his work to feed himself. Upon reaching Panama Matta joined the merchant marines which got him as far as the U.S. and France. There he came in contact with the avant-garde of French art at the time--Arshile Gorky, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, André Breton, and Le Corbusier. That's a petty rarified group, also a rather surrealistic one. Virtually all those early influences can be found in Matta's work if one knows what to look for. What makes Matta's art so difficult to comprehend is the fact that it only begins with surrealism over which Matta overlays a thick layer of Expressionism. Surrealism is difficult enough, Expressionism only makes it doubly so.

Psychological Morphology, 1938, Roberto Matta. Don't try to understand it, just enjoy it.
Crucifixion (Up, Down, Left, Right
From the Heart) 1971, Roberto Matta
Andre Breton, the kingpin of Surrealism, was the driving force behind Matta's exploration of his own mind, but it was the minds of Picasso, Duchamp, and others which shaped his personal style and vision. His 1938 Psychological Morphology (above) was the first flowering of Matta's mature style. There is a horizon and we see Dali's colors and delicate detailing, but beyond that, this is Matta painting Matta. As he moved from primarily drawing toward painting, the situation in Europe began moving from bad to worse; so Matta moved to the United States with his blend of organic and cosmic life forms. From 1938 to around 1948 he built his reputation in the U.S. so that when he returned to Chile he was something of an internationally recognized descendant of Abstract Expressionism. In effect, he took the New York School south. Matta's Crucifixion (Up, Down, Left, Right from the Heart), (left) dating from 1971 takes on the age old subject not from a religious point of view, but from a human perspective emphasizing the pain and torture over the spiritual.

The First Goal of the Chilean People, early 1970s, Roberto Matta,
(painted over in 1973, rediscovered in 2005, restored in 2008,
now in the city hall, La Granja, Santiago).

Where Dwells the Madness A, Roberto Matta,
During the 1960s and 70s, Matta spent time both in Europe and Chile, though his relationship with Breton had long since come to an end in a dispute over (what else?) a woman. Back in Chile, Matta became involved in the Socialist movement, aligning himself with then President Salvador Allende for whom he painted an enormous, 75-foot long mural, The First Goal of the Chilean People (above). However, when Allende was overthrown by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet, the new president didn't care much for Matta, his politics, or his art. Pinochet had the mural painted over with sixteen coats of white paint (I'm guessing there was a problem with Matta's pigments bleeding through the whitewash). In any case, following the death of Roberto Matta in 2002, the mural was rediscovered and restored. It now hangs in the La Granja City Hall, Santiago, Chile.

It Houses the Madness, 1970, Roberto Matta.


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