Roberto Matta: forgotten hero of Surrealism

His work influenced the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, yet the Latin-American painter remains relatively unknown. Now there are signs that his reputation is slowly on the up

Alastair Smart


It’s safe to say that Manhattan gallerist Julien Levy had rather a good eye. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, Frida Kahlo, Joseph Cornell and Henri Cartier-Bresson were among the artists given their first New York shows at his gallery.

Arguably the most important exhibition held there, though, was by a lesser-known painter: Roberto Matta. Matta had made his name as a Surrealist in Paris and, as the Second World War broke out, decided to move to the US. Levy gave him a solo show in 1940 and the impact it had on a generation of new American artists was huge.

Like Miró, Matta championed an automatist form of Surrealism, creating work through the unplanned gestures of his brush, which moved faster than his mind could think.

Matta referred to his paintings as “inscapes”, shorthand for landscapes of the mind, as if he were tapping into the unconscious every time he painted. His practice would influence the likes of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky immensely.

In short, he was a vital bridge between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and any analysis of the shift of artistic power from Paris to New York in the 20th century must surely include Matta.

He isn’t, however, as well-remembered today as he might be. He’s not a household name in the way Dalí, Giacometti and the other artists mentioned so far in this piece are. He’s often even confused with his own son, the sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark.

Why is this? In part, one suspects, because he came to Surrealism late; in 1937, to be precise, some 13 years after the movement had been launched and by which time all its major works had been painted. (Matta trained as an architect and worked for two years in the office of Le Corbusier in Paris).

Though a key influence on the Abstract Expressionists, he was never actually one of their number. His work, broadly speaking, was figurative. Clement Greenberg, the era’s art critic par excellence and Ab Ex painters’ cheerleader-in-chief, derided him as “the prince of comic-strippers” – a moniker that Matta never entirely managed to shake off. In 1948, he returned to Europe.

Roberto Sebastián Matta (Santiago del Cile 1911 – Civitavecchia, Roma 2002) L’Abeille du diamant, 1976, mixed techniques on canvas, 70 x 60 cm, Intesa Sanpaolo Collection

Another reason Matta fails to be accorded his due is nationality. Born in Santiago, Chile, he moved to Europe only in his twenties and is still often pigeonholed as a Latin-American artist. He has never quite made it into the Western canon; his work still tends to appear in Latin-American (rather than Modern) art sales at auction.

Matta moved back to Chile in 1970, when Salvador Allende’s socialist Popular Unity party won power. He painted a number of public murals in its support – one of which, El Primer Gol del Pueblo Chileno (“The First Goal of the Chilean People”), long thought lost, was recovered in 2008.

It had been deleted with 18 coats of paint during the dictatorial regime of General Augusto Pinochet. (Pinochet seized office from Allende in a coup in 1973 and immediately put Matta’s name on a “hit list”. The artist, fearing that no amount of bodyguards would be enough to protect him, fled the country.)

The Seventies was a particularly bad decade for Matta – personally as well as politically. He lost both his twin sons in their mid-thirties: Sebastian committed suicide in 1976 after a long battle with schizophrenia and Gordon died of pancreatic cancer in 1978.

The former is the subject of For Batan, a painting which forms part of Intesa Sanpaolo’s stellar collection of modern and contemporary art (Batan was Sebastian’s nickname). In truth, it’s hard to make out many direct references in it by Matta to his son: his art was too elusive for such things.

Rather, the painting is typical of the best canvases from the middle of his career, featuring disconcerting objects shaped like boulders, mutants and/or machines hurtling about in a dynamically-charged, cosmic space. Matta’s influences seem to have ranged from science-fiction films to Hieronymus Bosch. (For Batan also features in 101/900, a new publication cataloguing 101 of Intesa Sanpaolo’s best works from the 20th century.)

As it happens, there are signs that Matta’s reputation is now slowly on the up. His centenary year, 2011, was marked by a number of exhibitions worldwide. A year later, his painting La Revolte des Contraires (“The Revolt of Opposites”) sold for $5m, making it the most expensive work by a South-American artist ever sold at auction (a record it still holds).

Then, at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Matta was the subject of a tribute exhibition, for which various contemporary artists made works in some way inspired by him.

He also looks set to benefit from the current rise of Latin-American art generally. For a long time considered a niche market, cut off from the rest of the art world, nowadays – with Miami established as its hub and a Latin-American collector class growing apace – this work is seeing an increase in value. Museums in America and Europe, too, are shifting their previously narrow focus to embrace a more global view of 20th-century art.

As good a proof of this as any is the major retrospective for the Chilean, planned at the Guggenheim Museum in New York for 2019. How long before he is truly given the kudos he deserves? It seems just a Matta of time.


Cover photo:
Roberto Sebastián Matta (Santiago del Cile 1911 – Civitavecchia, Roma 2002)
For Batan, around 1974
oil on canvas, 145 x 208 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection

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