"There is in man the need to re-act in the endless web on which we interplay with the world," Matta once reflected. "The artist is expected to see what is hidden, like the blind see with the mind." The realities of the Second World War and its psychological trauma weighed heavily on Matta by 1945, and his paintings from this time bear witness to the cataclysmic shock of the atomic age. "My vision of myself was becoming blind for not being made one with people about me," Matta wrote in the wake of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "I thought to create a new morphology of others within my own field of consciousness."(1) Matta termed his paintings from the mid-1940s "social morphologies," and as his attention turned to the culture of modern civilization and the nature of humankind his paintings came likewise to reflect the anxiety and conscience of a new generation. The anguish of that social conflict is penetratingly rendered in Les separés vivants, whose sparring, disembodied figures epitomize the inhumanity and injustice of their world.
Fluent in Surrealist doctrine at the time of his arrival in New York in 1939, Matta found powerful inspiration in the art of non-Western cultures--felt by the Surrealists to be more in touch with the primal forces of nature--as he began to imagine the visual forms of the contemporary social universe. Prototypes for the grotesque, anthropomorphic beings that joust menacingly in the foreground of Les separés vivants include primitive sculptures from Oceania and totems of Northwest Coast Indians, believed to signify communal thought and spiritual guardianship. The transmutation of ethnographic sculpture into Duchampian mechanical robots, ridden with fear and anger, resulted in what Matta termed vitreurs, the transparent, elongated beings that populate his paintings and drawings from this period. As William Rubin has described, these unnatural creatures "constitute a phantasma of aggression and exploitation. With their semaphoric gestures, their half-insect, half-machine forms, they seem monstrous cybernetic embodiments of the hidden forces that seek to control our lives."(2)
Menacing, with sharp-edged instruments in the place of human hands and disturbing cyclopean countenances, the figures of Les separés vivants viscerally embody the destructive forces unleashed by war. Even as they battle each other, they struggle against the entwining appendages of creatures ghastly and immaterial in their midst: labyrinthine limbs wrap around the shoulders of the female figure and the long, extended arm of her partner, threatening to pull them into the enveloping, illusionistic space behind them. Thinned layers of eerie, semi-transparent yellow-green pigment saturate the deep space of the canvas, disorienting the rational order implied by the architectonic forms and aerial perspective. Matta's paintings from this period, as Elizabeth A. T. Smith and Colette Dartnall have noted, incorporate:
a more muted luminosity, and a pronounced, clearly architectural indication of structure. These paintings contain both geometric patterns and soft-edged forms, evoking the confines of architecture and the womb as well as the organic and vast nature of the universe.(3)
The existential conflict of the universal cosmos is hauntingly distilled in the alienated, antagonistic bodies of Les separés vivants. The lurid intensity of their confrontation, amplified in the exquisite draftsmanship and sickly pallor of their bodies, becomes in Matta's iconography the apocalyptic image of a civilization in grave distress. Yet the nature of morphology is to suggest the potential for metamorphosis and transformative change, and latent within Matta's harrowing image is the artist's humanist belief in the renewal of civilization and the resilience of human life.
1) Matta, quoted in P. Selz, "Matta," Roberto Matta: Paintings & Drawings: 1971-1979, La Jolla, CA: Tasende Gallery, 1980, 7-8.
2) W. Rubin, Matta, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1957, 9.
3) E. A. T. Smith and C. Dartnall, "'Crushed Jewels, Air, Even Laughter: Matta in the 1940s," Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the 1940s, Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2001, 22.