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From Architect to Surrealist: Roberto Matta Echaurren

Andréa Fernandes

Roberto Matta Echaurren (1911-2002), known as Matta, was described by Robert Motherwell as "the most energetic, enthusiastic, poetic, charming, brilliant young artist." At the request of reader Peter, today's post features Matta, who was born 97 years ago last Tuesday and died five years ago next Sunday.

1. Matta was always artistically expressive. As a young boy, he built his own theater, with a curtain and a backdrop, and would persuade his many cousins to perform. In college, he studied architecture and interior design. He practiced architecture for many years, including two years in the studio of Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier.

2. According to Matta, he began painting "through necessity, of trying to find an expression"¦ a morphology, of the functioning of one's thinking, or one's feeling." Matta's unique method of painting—making a splotch of paint, then smearing it to see where it would take him—was an attempt to connect with his unconscious.

3. Matta's romantic life got off to a rocky start when he proposed to the much older, Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and was turned down. He seemed to have no problems after that, though, as he had six children with five women, four of whom he married. He also had an affair with Arshile Gorky's estranged wife, which his Surrealist friends felt contributed to Gorky's suicide. (They exiled him from the group for eleven years as a result.)

4. Upon hearing of Federico Garcia Lorca's assassination in 1936, Matta wrote a film script in tribute to Garcia Lorca's "dark and cultic poetry." The script was composed of "162 intense, rapid scenes ripe with imagery of death, chaos, and psychological hysterics."

5. Just this past Sunday (November 16, 2008), the three-year, $43,000 restoration of one of Matta's large murals, "The First Goal of the Chilean People," was completed. The 4 x 24 meter mural celebrating the 1971 victory of Socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende had been covered in 16 coats of paint during the Chilean military dictatorship of the "˜70s. The mural is now on display at the La Granja city hall outside Santiago.

A larger version of Matta's 1955 painting, "Bringing Light Without Pain," is available here. Fans should check out this portrait of Matta; the Matta gallery at Art in the Picture; the images from a 2004 Matta exhibition at Boston College; and this video of a 2007 Matta exhibition. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions, with details of current exhibitions, or for sources or further reading.