With its distinctive vocabulary of mythic creatures, transparent planes, mechanical
contraptions, and twisted bodies, the enigmatic world of Roberto Matta creates alternative
universes of swirling cosmic space beyond the limitations of mere physical existence.
BY MIGUEL ROJAS-MIX
Latin American Art. Inaugural Iassue, Spring 1989
Surrealism is, without a doubt, the first artistic school of Matta, and its spirit pervades his humor and intelligence. But if surrealism fostered him, he gave surrealism an original landscape, made up of moving space, multiple dimensions, and one in which atmospheres, elements, perspectives, actions, feelings, connections, and joints overlap.
Marcel Duchamp said in 1946, “The first contribution in Matta’s work to surrealist painting, and the most important, was the discovery of regions of space, until then unknown in the field of art. Matta followed the modern physicists in the search for this new space; space that, in spite of its discovery in painting, should not be confused with a new tridimensional illusion.”1
Matta restored to space the temporal dimension that the Western perspective had abandoned nearly a half-century before. It was a space already familiar to the documents and murals created in Latin America before the arrival of Cortez, in Oriental art, and a space that Medieval painting had practiced for centuries before the Renaissance institutionalized the aesthetic of the “model that does not move.”
Matta does not inscribe time in a visually flat, trivialized environment, whose only function is to tell the story. Rather, he makes a stage out of space. In this sense, his painting has a theatrical, baroque dimension. It is a staging with lights, transparent curtains, soundboards, and stage machinery, because it has a double function: to narrate and to communicate. On one hand, it tells the story and puts things into action; on the other, it is an emotional dimension, transmitting the movements of the individual and the cosmos, the eruptions of the magma, and the propulsions of the spirit.
Paul Klee, in his Teatro Botánico, creates a landscape that cannot identify with the exterior panorama, but which is eminently interior, where the visible combines with the emotional. Such is Matta’s attitude in his earliest works. Escucha Vivir (1941) (Listen to Living) is the first of a series that the artist completed during his trip to Mexico in that year. Matta left for Veracruz accompanied by Robert Motherwell, his wife Ann, and Barbara Rice. After a brief stay in Havana, they continued on to Mexico where he worked intensely each day.
Almost accidentally, as Matta confesses, his paintings began to take on the shape of volcanos. He began to use light as an interior fire able to catch on different points, without being submitted to any logic other than that of sentiments. ‘ ‘Only bad things are visible,” he argues, and adds, “My treatment of flame brought me to that point. I saw everything in flames, but from a metaphysical point of view.’ ‘2
However, Matta is an optimist. In his later works he makes the vitreur intervene; that unusual, serious yet humorous character that creates the transparencies necessary for communication. It is possible that during that time in Mexico, Matta conceived the idea of this character.
Matta’s work at that time also denounced the war. From 1941, his opposition takes the form of a series of paintings using cold colors in which the organic spaces combine with linear, schematic, cold, and empty perspectives. Among these are El Centro del Agua (The Center of Water), which a short time ago was sold at Sotheby’s; Years of Fear, which reflects the spirit of the series; and most importantly, Locus Solus. This painting was an attempt to represent the space of war, the locus, not in the physical sense, but from within. “How can the battlefield be represented, not physically, but from an inner perspective?” Matta wondered.
It was this space that fascinated New York artists who followed him at that time: the ill-fated Gorky, Motherwell, and Pollock, who only turned away from him when he began to populate the figure’s perspectives. Abstract expressionism left the side of pure abstraction as Matta began to narrate with characters.
Beginning in 1945, Matta’s worlds began to be inhabited by unusual bodies ranging from the totem to the astronaut. These are the vitreurs, schematic anthropomorphisms that took the form of robots, fauns, pre-Columbian characters, an erotic scene, or political criticism. Space that leaves routine logic behind serves the subversive message of these vitreurs. Criticism of society, technological dehumanization, power and repression spring forth from the spacial relationships between the vitreurs, fabulous monsters of man and machine. The vitreur, the character we should all become, exorcises evil with humor, love, and intelligence. “Desire changes man,” Matta states. “You have the extreme structures of desire; man as absence and man as monster. These extremes, and everything in between, should be seen in perspective and expressed in a special space— the space of meaning—a structure of acts is a deceptive painting. What I most look for is what tricks a person.’3
In Matta’s great paintings, he creates an open space, an extension that, thanks to their transparencies and multiple perspectives, allows for complex possibilities of emotional excitement. Diversity of simultaneous perspectives builds a “moving scenery” of our lives that is at once burlesque, psychological, and poetic. The variety of perspectives opens numerous routes to the event. Thus, Matta creates a space where one-dimensionality splits in two in evolutions of time comprising diverse moments of action. These perspectives allow Matta to make life circulate. The lack of a point of escape makes the spaces light and allows him to situate all his characters in the same plane, on the sides of an open cube, some above others or in succession
Matta sees individual existence developing in a cube: a room, studio, office or any other enclosed space. Opening this cube is to open the history of man and to take him out of his loneliness and selfishness; to break up his one-dimensionality. In Matta’s atmosphere various open cubes coexist. These create the situational space: the individual and his environment; harmonious or contradictory circumstances. Matta either unites these “images-situations” with bright trajectories or else he separates them with “holes,” which are the distances separating the cubes of existence. He accentuates the speed of movements and relationships through turbulence.
Two fundamental propulsions are expressed in Matta’s decep- tive spaces: his fascination for the cryptic and the voluntary nature of anticipation. The cryptic—history and totem—unite him with America, his past, his childhood, his original culture.
Christ is a fundamental theme in the mental iconography of Hispanics. It is said that if Velazquez’ El Cristo showed the Peninsula what Spanish mysticism was, in the New World it manifested the idea of life, imposing an image of God on the colonized. Since he began painting, Matta has repeatedly incorporated the theme of Christ: Cristifixion (1938) is the first version, followed by Crucifixhim (1947) and El Cristo del Labrador (The Farmer’s Christ), which he created in Chile in 1971. The religious metaphor flows easily in Matta’s work. Christ is another vitreur, sacrificed to the forces of hatred and the darkness of dehumanization.
If anticipation makes his work an essay or prophecy, it also projects it towards the future, allowing it to provoke, propose, desire, and sanction. The cryptic aspect allows Matta to conceive paintings as a myth, to act upon the world in the same way the Aztecs could make it rain by painting a god.
It is possible that Matta’s greatest preoccupation is the result of this encounter between the cryptic and the future: the role of art and artist. The artist should unceasingly provoke reality in order to achieve the integral emancipation of man. He must be a vitreur, one who makes the darkness of the individual disappear. Facing what has already been seen he must look for what has not been seen. This is the creative meaning that Matta attributes to art and where perhaps one of the greatest values of his work takes root.
Matta increasingly makes use of transparent planes in his paintings. In his 1976 I’Susigne there is a tete-a-tete between two bodies separated by a plate of glass. “Yes, I use plates of glass and transparent planes in my paintings. It is because I am more interested in what exists between things. Glass symbolizes a world simultaneously open and closed. I paint two human beings and a glass plate between them. They are isolated, but at the same time they have the possibility of seeing one another, opening a passage that will bring them together. And where I paint an explosion, it is a dialogue, an action. Or where I paint crystals between people, it is a delayed action, et cetera. All of this constitutes a whole; it constitutes the human being and his Milky Way.”4
In Les Doutes du Trois Mondes (The Doubts of Three Worlds), created for UNESCO in 1956, Matta opens up the work showing that its space is a word, a thought. The cube is confinement; opening it is the function of the vitreur, and its opening is rich in consequences because it generates new spaces that enrich themovement and displacement of its actors. This opening is alsopermanently expressed in his linguistic games. Going beyondwords, ideas, images, concepts is Matta’s ultimate quest. Thepurpose of this art is to leave the world in action, open to change,stopping neither the image nor the concept in an unlimitedcosmic space.
- “Matta” (1946), in Karin S. Dercier, Marcel Duchamp: Collection of the Societe Anonyme: Museum of Modern Art, 1920, New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery (1950), p. 91.
2. G. Ferrari. Matta. Entretiens Morphologiques. Notebook No. 1:1936-1944, London: Sistan (1987), p. 108.
3. Ingemar Leckius Gustafsson, “Fragmentos de una conversation con Matta, Paris 1955,” Matta, Malmo Sweden: Bergstrom (1988).
Dr. Rojas-Mix is Director of Investigations, Institute for Higher Studies of Latin America, University of Paris, Sorbonne.