Was Matta an architect, a painter, a sculptor, a designer, a poet? Probably all this and much more. He was not only a creator of works, words and language, he was a genius: cultured, educated, seductive, of a superior intelligence, as becomes manifest in his writings that one day should be gathered, studied and published. During his entire life he presented himself as an architect, even though his fame was born from painting.
He traveled to Europe in 1935, shortly after graduating from the traditional Catholic University of Santiago. Although from a wealthy family, he had a deep social conscience due to the conditions of poverty he had witnessed in Chile. His intention was to develop social housing, and he traveled to the Soviet Union in 1936, as he explained in his letters to one of his best friends at the time, the architect Luis Mitrovic1.
He arrived first in Madrid, eager to explore, learn, travel, love, discover. He made friends with Federico García Lorca, went to Portugal to visit Gabriela Mistral, future Literature Nobel Prize winner and Chilean Consul in Lisbon. Then he got a work contract and traveled to Ethiopia to teach the use of the rifle to soldiers of the Abyssinian empire, which allowed him to experience the irrationality of war2 and to become imbued with Africa, a continent for which he had a great passion all his life. Shortly before the start of the Spanish Civil War, he left Madrid for Paris with little money, a letter to Salvador Dalí given to him by García Lorca, and a commission to visit Pablo Picasso, who was working on the Guernica3. Coming from a remote country at the end of the world called Chile, Matta was able to insert himself with extraordinary speed in the avant-garde of the 1930s and to be identified as a surrealist, even though he did not even know the meaning of the word, as he often said. The story is well known.
The movement created by André Breton in 1924 brought together the French and foreign artistic and intellectual elite living in Paris, still horrified by the consequences of the First World War. Matta began a friendship with Dalí, to whom he introduced himself as an architect, but also took the opportunity to show him some drawings. Dalí sent him to André Breton, who had a small gallery, "Gradiva", on the Rue du Seine. "I didn't even know that surrealism existed, and they tell me, you are a surrealist!"4 Breton bought a couple of his works and also put him in touch with Le Corbusier's architecture studio, who invited him to work with him.
Matta began to paint and entered the Parisian world with friendly, as well as conflictive relationships with several of its members, starting with Breton, who in 1948 would expel him from the movement, accusing of responsibility in the suicide of Arshile Gorky, because the wife of the latter, Maguche, had a relationship with Matta. When the movement later tried to reinstate him, he refused, although some biographies indicate that he did. He had already begun to fly artistically as a painter. His extensive culture and the deep friendship he developed with Marcel Duchamp opened up new paths for him, and his work was recognized in such a way that Duchamp noted that, of all the painters of his generation, Matta was "the most profound”5.
Because of his formal education in Chile, his social origins, and his personal motivation, Matta was extremely cultured. He arrived in Europe speaking fluent French and English in addition to Spanish and then Italian, where he spent much of his life. All of this would later be of great use to him when he embarked to New York from Marseille in April 1941, along with his friends Max Ernst, André Breton, Man Ray and Ives Tanguy.
His poem Le jour est un attentat, (The Day is an Assault), was written in French in 1942, and he also painted a canvas - which is part of the collection of the Museo de Bellas Artes de Chile - after leaving a Europe at war and a France occupied by the Nazi Germany. It is a profound reflection on life, at a time when walking down a street or being at home one was in danger of being bombed, shot at, or arrested by the Gestapo. Re-reading it in 2020, I have associated it with the plague that hits the planet nowadays and that has us refugees, fearful, hiding in our homes. Matta says in one part of his poem:
If you want to measure time, the real measure is the day, not the twenty-four-hour day, but the day as an assault, as a threat, as a risk.
And of course, he is right. In normal times, every day there is the danger of death, we do not know what will happen to us. In times of war even more so. Today, moreover, there is the plague, we are exposed to an invisible enemy: a virus, the Covid-19.
Matta remained in the United States where he developed friendly relationships with artists such as Gorky, Rothko, Motherwell, Pollok and several others, who met weekly in his studio or at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery. They are known as the school of "abstract expressionism" and were strongly influenced by this Chilean artist, who told them to "visualize time"6. He never gave much importance to this line of painting, nor did he find great value in it, not even in Warhol's work, which he considered to be "nothing, just clever publicity"7.
Matta returned to Europe and from the 1950s onwards he settled mainly in Italy, a country he considered his own. First in Rome and then in the Etruscan city of Tarquinia, where he made friends who remember him with admiration and affection. He passed away in 2002, being buried like an Etruscan in the cellar of his workshop, where today he rests next to Germana, his last wife for more than 30 years.
There is a lot, but really a lot, to know, learn and decipher from the messages in the paintings and writings of this genius, who was strongly influenced by the thoughts of Freud, Einstein and the scientific discoveries of the 20th century that he was passionate about. He immersed himself in the unconscious in a permanent search for diving into the depths of human thought and captured it in his huge canvases.
1 Matta’s Letters. Cartas de Roberto Matta a Luis Mitrovic. Editorial Eco. Santiago: 2003.
3 Servadio, Gaia. Incontri. Abramo editori. Milano: 1993, page 142.
4 Servadio, Ibid., p. 144.
5 Sawin, Martica, p.169.
6 Sawin, Ibid., p. 169.
7 Servadio, Ibid., p. 147.