Visionary Painter Roberto Matta Dies

Chile's Surrealist

Roberto Matta
Viewers survey Roberto Matta's mural 'Los Poderes de los Desastres' (The Power of Disasters) in São Paulo, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

When the Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta died on Nov. 23, 2002, at the age of 91, the world lost one of the 20th century’s greatest artists. His work, shown at such places as Paris’s Centre Pompidou and London’s Hayward Gallery, pleased crowds and critics the world over. Viewing his paintings was described as “like walking into a huge aquarium full of glowing colors, peopled by strange beasts from the depths that cried out for attention,” according to one reviewer. In the 1970s, Matta was voted one of the world’s 10 greatest living painters.

Matta’s colors and beasts, which the artist dubbed his “inscapes”—representations of the landscapes of his inner world—were developed over the course of a long and varied history. Born in Santiago to a wealthy French and Basque family, Matta grew up heavily influenced by European culture. His father, a landowner, was reportedly distant and awkward towards him, and by the 1930’s Matta decided to flee his family and country for Paris. There, he spent two years working in the renowned architect Le Corbusier’s studio before deciding that architecture was not his medium.

He then set out to travel—and, in the process, managed to get in with a circle of well-known artists. While visiting his aunt in Madrid, he became friends with poets Pablo Neruda and Garcia Lorca. In Lisbon, he met—and, despite the fact that she was several years older than he—fell in love with the Chilean Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral. He later proposed to her, though she declined.

In 1937, Lorca introduced Matta to painter Salvador Dali, who in turn introduced him to fellow-surrealist André Breton. Impressed by Matta's drawings, Breton, who had founded Surrealism in 1924, invited the young artist to join the burgeoning group. A year later, Matta’s professional life took a new turn when he worked with the British artist Gordon Onslow-Ford in Brittany. When Onslow-Ford locked him in a cottage and demanded that he paint, Matta began to produce his first canvases, beginning an exploration into the visionary landscape of the subconscious. That same year, his work was shown at the international surrealist exposition at Paris’s Beaux-Arts gallery.

But with the Second World War looming, Matta felt himself—a foreign left-wing alien living in Europe—to be too exposed. And so, at 27, he left for the United States. There, he is said to have influenced many important artists, including his close friends Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. Breton considered Gorky the most important of the American recruits to Surrealism, and critics have suggested that Gorky's work provided a crucial bridge between European Surrealism and American Abstract Expressionism.

Matta would not return to France until 1948. Upon his return, he was surprised to discover that he had been expelled from the Surrealist group. Feeling shunned, he moved to Italy, whose Mediterranean culture would ultimately have a large impact on his work. He also became interested in—and influenced by—ancient Mexican art.

Though Matta spent much of his life living outside his native Chile, the country continued to hold a significant place in his heart—likewise, he continued to have a significant influence on it. In the early 1970s he was a major supporter of Chile’s Salvadore Allende, and took three trips back to his country while Allende was in power. After a coup by Augusto Pinochet brought down Allende’s regime, Matta began providing significant contributions to opposition groups.

In Chile, the painter’s death was marked by three days of national mourning. Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said Matta’s death “represents the passing of one of the last major figures of painting in the 20th century.”