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Matta, The Singular Master Of South American Surrealism

Chile's preeminent 20th-century artist and a leading global figure of surrealism and abstraction, Matta's work was both unique and quintessentially Latin American.

Painting by Roberto Matta
Painting by Roberto Matta
Mercedes Perez Bergliaffa

BUENOS AIRES Roberto Matta Echaurren, known simply as Matta, once said that life resembles rivers much more than an "upright tree." Rivers "flow, carry memories, desires, anxiety, love and poetry. It is energy. And one needs that energy at life's critical moments."

Forty of Matta's paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures are now on display in Buenos Aires, at an exhibition titled Este Lado Del Mundo ("This Side of the World"), organized by the Chilean embassy's Matta Cultural Center. It presents viewers with a double opportunity, to get to know both the center and the art of Matta, so seldom seen here despite his historical importance, which has grown since his death in Civitavecchia, Italy in 2002.

Matta's life was brilliant and restless, guided by a healthy dose of unlikely fate. Trained as an architect, he travelled to Europe in the 1930s, and by 1936 was working as a designer at Le Corbusier's studio in Paris. "I was just an architect then," he once said. "I knew nothing about art or poetry."

During that time, he became acquainted with surrealist André Breton and with Edward Onslow Ford (who was in Breton's circle of painters), who lent him a house in England for six months. He also gave him paints and canvases, before telling him alongside Breton, "now paint." Matta had never painted before.

Yet that was the experience that molded his unfamiliar forms and the gestures that "emerged from the dark," as he characterized it. "Almost like striking a match or pressing your finger onto an eye and seeing sparkles." The pseudo-landscapes emerging in the artist's mind, which he termed "psychological morphologies," became the leitmotiv of his entire work, especially early on (1938-48).

New techniques

Some critics call them interior landscapes. Matta would create them on the basis of "hallucinations" he would perceive as he applied the very first strokes of paint onto the canvas. This exploration created unfamiliar structures that differed from the imagery of other surrealists who created images seen or half-remembered from dreams. Such structures are illustrated in the exhibition in works such as Mind, Mind, Mind (1951) or Composition With Green Tones (1939).

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Roberto Matta's "Composition With Green Tones" (1939) — Source: Colección Eduardo Constantini

In 1939, Matta travelled to New York with his first wife, Anne Clark, to get away from World War II. For a while, he developed his techniques and created the notion of "transparent beings" (the white spirits seen in some of the works on display). He influenced the New York School (Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell) with his automatic painting methods. But the war, the Holocaust and subsequent conditions in Latin America politicized him and transformed his iconography into a combination of surrealist, metaphysical forms, and machines and tormented human figures. It was a new mythology of humans turning on themselves and grieving for their many failures. Works shown from this period include Le photographe ("The Photographer," 1958) and Etre cible nous monde ("Our Earth is a Target," 1959).

Later, starting in the 1960s, Matta began to delve into Latin American history, with typical works of this period shown in Buenos Aires, including The Birth of America and the series El gran Burundún-Burundá ha muerto (a reference to regional dictatorships).

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Roberto Matta in the 1960s — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The opening painting in the exhibit, influenced by automatic and surrealist techniques as well as Albert Einstein's ideas, combines Matta's lifelong artistic traits. It is The Day is an Attack and has everything that Matta's art represents — poetry, technique, playfulness, curiosity, sadness. It was painted during the war, but depicts a day, not a night.

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Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images via ZUMA
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