Matta was born Roberto Antonio Sebastián Matta Echaurren on November 11, 1911 in Santiago, Chile. He studied architecture and interior design at Sacré Coeur Jesuit College in Chile, and a few years after graduation worked in Paris with the famous modernist architect & theorist Le Corbusier. 1934 saw him taking a momentous trip to Spain which would greatly impact the course of his life. While there, he visited the great Spanish poet Federico Garciá Lorca, who introduced him to Dalí. Dalí in turn encouraged Matta to share his drawings with André Breton — writer, poet, erstwhile communist and founder of the Surrealist movement — and the next thing you know Matta joins the movement in ’37.
As a student I thought of Matta as an interesting satellite figure in the constellation of Surrealist actors, but was largely unmoved by his busy, dense, expressive works. There was a great deal there that momentarily piqued me — themes of sexual unrest, emotional intensity, biomorphic excess & frantic activity. But there was something about his work that was hard to latch onto emotionally, and I wouldn’t really find myself dwelling on, exploring, sticking to his canvases.
Revisiting him now — especially his post-war works, which can be found here — I feel much the same way, except now a new dimension has been added: I’m genuinely troubled by some of these pieces. He was apparently very prolific during this period, depicting alien, vaguely bipedal ganglionic noodle-beings posing dramatically or interacting, stationed in detailed welters of cables and shelves and partitions that flit in and out of recognizability. You see in these pieces his schooling come out in the geometrically sophisticated layouts, the attention to spaces and depth, the harmonies of color. There’s a lot technically to be blown away be here.
But there’s a kind figurative instability (in the weird tentacly jumble of faces & limbs, in the ordered-chaos of the alien interiors) and detachment emotionally that unsettles me. A figurative instability which, more importantly, I’d argue is often mis-managed aesthetically. Put another way, the pieces occupy this rare territory between figurativeness & abstraction that, when managed right, make for an experience that’s weird+stirring, but when not, leaves the work merely weird+repellant. Now, one might say, “If it destabilizes us, that’s a way of moving us, that’s a way of exerting power, that’s a way of being art that works.” Right?
Well, yes and no. It depends on degree, it depends on what else the painting has to offer. I’m reminded here of some of Bacon’s work, where anatomy, and especially facial features, are presented in this weird mushy cubistic fog, which in a soft blurry way, hints at great violence and chaos, either in the artist’s psyche, or worldview, or both. Now, in Bacon’s case, this instability of real-world signifier — the anatomical chaos, the facial feature scramble, the clutter of organism and setting that feels random but isn’t, that is meant — and meant powerfully — and in a language we sort of speak and sort of don’t — this instability often works to the paintings’ advantage, and is part and parcel of the works’ success. And that’s because Bacon more often than not manages the rest of the works’ elements carefully to frame & support that instability in a way that alienates the viewer while fixing him still and stirring him. Example: Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Crucifixion” (1962). This painting stirs in part because its instabilities — anatomical chief among them — are offset by stable (compositionally) backgrounds and interiors. Check that flat pared-down red cold luxury of some bureaucrat’s expensive suite in hell:
(click to zoom)
Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962
Oil with sand on canvas, three panels
The title (people never pay enough attention to the power of the title in visual arts!) also helps ground it: we are witnessing slow torture — & biblically speaking, the pivotal state-sponsored torture of Jesus — & three views of it. Now the terror becomes something we can sit with, and want to understand, because we are given just enough to hold on to other than the viscera-chaos & deformation. A lot could have gone wrong with this painting had the right delicate balance of text, context & technique not been achieved — which leads me to my thesis, which is that the more the artist tries to operate within that narrow territory bridging the known/figurative/recognizable with the unknown/subjective/alien, the greater the margin of error; the more perilous his or her task is to make the work not just de-stabilizing, but successful as an object that human beings want to get to know after the initial shock has worn off. The easier it is to fail and merely be creepy. The greater the artist has to be.
Because if all you’re offering me is the alien-that’s-not-quite-alien, I’m going to feel strange, maybe focus on your brush-work and intricate details, but eventually walk away and not come back, & not want to know you further. Not because I’m scared — but because I’m unmoved. Now, if you offer me all that stuff PLUS something more I can use to bridge your world to mine, I’ll not only feel unsettled, & admire your technique, but I’ll wonder about you. I’ll stick around your works, and try & communicate with you, the artist, about what you are doing, what you are trying to show and say and mean (whether you think you are trying to show/say/mean or not). Really communicate. (Of course without felt communication art is still art, but of a babbly & gibbering sort. Of fuzzy alien faces huddled in the corner, backs turned to the world.)
Now back to Matta. Here’s an example of one of his pieces that gets it right (click to zoom):
Roberto Matta (Chilean, 1911-2002)
untitled (Prime Ordeal), 1946
Oil on canvas
Why does this work for me? After all, I’m disoriented trying to figure out its arrangement; I don’t know whether to look at this piece sideways or vertically. There are carcass-like hunks & dead meat flaps hanging in bacon-esque contortion & confusion inside a kind of vast Duchamp-ecru airport terminal space. There’s a bladder sac in the bottom leaking white fluid. The canvas soaks in and out of figurativeness, like a scrambled television show occasionally righting to clarity & focus. There’s a suggestion of machinery, process, protocol, alembic, maybe experiment. It’s an unwholesome, arresting work. And I stick with it. And I try and learn from it. But why?
The title, mostly. It’s that simple. “Ordeal” connotes suffering, some living thing under duress. “Prime” suggests beef. Right there we’re offered common ground. A few ropes to grasp. Associations your average human viewer can latch onto: that this may or may not have to do with industrialized animal slaughter for human consumption. Just that little “may or may not” suddenly flowers out entire dimensions of possibility in the viewer’s aesthetic valuation (which is never just about form, color and composition, but always about how those elements work in the viewer to engage spirit, heart and mind). With this grounding in language, with this common ground established, the painting can still retain its instability; again, soak in and out of figurativeness — like a ruined moldy halloween mask bobbing up and down in a scummy swamp-pond — but it now can roam farther in the mind given its establishment of a possible real-world frame of reference.
In this way, a painting can enjoy maximum freedom & play in the mind. With just this little verbal suggestion of an intellectual constraint to pure freedom of meaning. (Note: other elements of the painting function in much the same way: the carcasses for example, & the blood: fairly unambiguously themselves, title or no.)
A deftly-executed, unsettling painting — already an achievement — now becomes something more, & more enduring: a stirring, connectable, powerful artwork. Something you want to spend time in and explore. I’m not saying Matta’s postwar paintings don’t have merit — they’re striking, elaborate, eerie, highly technical pieces that deserve attention. But they don’t fix my attention & stir me like “untitled (Prime Ordeal)” does, for complicated reasons I hope I’ve at least semi-explained. Cheers y’all.
For more examples of Matta’s work & for more information about his life, please check out www.matta-art.com.
For more examples of Bacon’s art & for more information about his life, try www.francis-bacon.com.