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You’ve probably heard a lot in the past few years about the importance of education and paths to careers in STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The humanities, including art and art history, are often seen as frivolous or extracurricular paths to pursue, especially when we are so surrounded by technology and can see the impact that STEM innovation has had on our lives every day. The humanities and social sciences have a much less visible and measurable impact, and so they often fall down the list of priorities underneath STEM where funding, attention, and resources are concerned. Many, however, have proposed we revise STEM to include the arts, so that the acronym becomes STEAM, thus placing the arts’ impact on par with that of the sciences. STEM and the arts are much more closely interrelated than many might think, given the border that is often drawn between them. But upon looking at the design that goes into user interfaces and devices, as well as exploring the ways in which artists have tackled scientific and mathematical themes in their work, not to mention forms of art that are entirely dependent on modern technologies, such as video, kinetic sculpture, or digital art, that border is revealed to be an artificial one, and we see how these various disciplines influence each other and exchange ideas.
Among the many artists who took on themes outside of the arts in their work was Chilean painter Roberto Matta Echaurren, whose body of work explored ideas such as the landscape of the human psyche, the visualization of non-Euclidean geometry, the theory of relativity, and, near the end of his life, a CD-ROM-focused project. In this episode, I’ll be discussing one of Matta’s earlier works, a painting from 1941 entitled Invasion of the Night, which is currently in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The painting is a surreal form of landscape that Matta called “inscape” or “psychological morphology,” which “tried to give shape to mental architecture.” I don’t use the word “surreal” lightly here—Matta was intimately familiar with and an accepted part of the Surrealist movement in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century, the same Surrealist movement that we associate with Salvador Dalí. But while Dalí gained incredible celebrity over the course of his career and is one of the most iconic and recognizable artists of all time, Matta remains relatively sidelined, despite having had just as long a career and, arguably, just as much influence. Matta and Invasion of the Night thus bring up important art historical questions: How does an artist become an icon? What do we do when an artist resists classification within a certain style or movement? What happens when an artist crosses disciplines and brings STEM into the artistic realm? By the end of this episode I hope we’ll all be more curious about those scientific disciplines across the border, and it’ll just seem natural to transform STEM into STEAM. Time to question what you know, and, like any good Surrealist, get real weird. Let’s go!
A description of Roberto Matta’s Invasion of the Night, oil on canvas, 1941. Fields of color—mostly yellow, blue, and red—suffuse the canvas, forming the contours of formations that could be rocks, could be foliage, or could be something more visceral altogether. In the upper left of the image, where blues mingle with dark grays, we see a formation of black, green, and bright yellow that takes a hand-like shape, albeit with far too many digits. Below this “hand,” which seems to float in space, is an uneven yellow plain with holes in it revealing structures underneath. One hole features streaks of red near the opening that almost resemble blood. One hole partially reveals some kind of green thing—perhaps a plant, perhaps an animal, perhaps a machine. Out of another hole protrudes a round, mushroom-cap-like platform, on top of which rests a red and green object in a black armature. Further armatures can be seen in an opening in the back wall of the space and in the lower center of the image. The entire space depicted recesses somewhat into the center of the painting, where a blue space separates the yellow wall above it. Within that yellow wall is still another hole, filled entirely with redness and green-and-pink blotches. At the top right of the painting is another suspended formation that appears to be connected to both the ceiling and the floor of this space, as if by stalactites, or possibly membranes. A reddish, bluish semi-spherical shape, it is dotted with white blobs with black or blue blobs in their centers, highly reminiscent of eyeballs, or possibly fruits on a tree. From the base of this orb flows a field of blue that appears fluid. Within this translucent blue field floats a serrated strand of red, reminiscent of sea kelp. This “kelp” appears to be rooted into the yellow plain in the bottom left quadrant of the image, and thus every quadrant of the painting appears connected to the one bordering it. The painting is 38 inches by about 60 inches, large enough to allow the viewer to absorb themselves in viewing the image, but not so large as to overpower them.
So how did Matta develop such an interesting (and sort of gross) take on depicting the landscape of the mind? His path to the Surrealist tradition of which Invasion is a part is an interesting one, for sure. Born in 1911 in Chile to a family of Basque descent, Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren was educated in Jesuit schools all the way through university, where he studied architecture. In 1933, Matta left Santiago for Paris, where he worked in the studio of famed architect Le Corbusier. Much of Matta’s family was in Spain, and it was upon visiting them there that Matta made the first of many Forrest Gump-esque connections with luminaries of the twentieth century, specifically poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Soon after, he met fellow Chileans Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, and it was through their influence, and that of the Hispanic and Latin American literary community in general, that Matta incorporated narratives and literary themes in his work. Lorca wrote Matta a letter of introduction to Salvador Dalí, and Dalí in turn introduced Matta to Surrealist leader André Breton in 1937. The Surrealists’ ideas were rooted in a number of early twentieth-century philosophies, but are particularly known for the attention they paid to Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, which they sought to unlock in part through a technique known as “automatism.” Matta was also interested in automatism, which is defined in the Tate’s glossary of art terms as, quote: “creating art without conscious thought, accessing material from the unconscious mind as part of the creative process.” End quote. Matta’s contact with the Surrealists and involvement in their exhibitions coincided with the beginning of “inscapes” like Invasion of the Night. While he wasn’t a strict Surrealist, he was thoroughly embraced by the group, and André Breton introduced him in the final issue of Surrealist publication Minotaure by stating that, quote, “Matta is already at the peak of a brilliant pictorial production…. Every one of the pictures painted by Matta since last year is a festival where all of the games of chance are played.” End quote.
In 1939, Nazi Germany’s expansion of its territory prompted Matta and his wife Anne to depart Paris, as many other liberal intellectuals did at the time to escape the fascist threat. They moved to New York, along with other Surrealists like Breton, but Matta found a greater connection with the American art community there than other emigrés, in part because he spoke English. He became influenced by the American landscape painting tradition, and in 1940 had his first one-man show at Julian Levy Gallery. In the years following, he would mentor future giants of the Abstract Expressionist movement like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, and it was a trip to Mexico in 1941 with Motherwell that prompted Matta to look more deeply into the history and mythology of Latin America and its art, and incorporate it into his work. Matta’s story continues on from here, of course, with hundreds of exhibitions and even more involvement with famous names and events, including Castro’s revolution in Cuba and Salvador Allende’s political career in the 1960s and 70s. But let’s focus on 1941, and explore the context of Invasion of the Night beyond Matta’s own history.
When Matta painted Invasion of the Night, World War II was in full swing, and France had already been divided into two states—one occupied by the Nazis, and one “free” state with its government based in Vichy. While it’s unclear when exactly during 1941 Matta finished Invasion, the war must have been on his mind since he had been obliged to leave France due to the German threat only two years earlier, and his adopted United States would enter the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The very title of the painting, Invasion of the Night, has military connotations. Though it most likely does not directly refer to the war itself since it is one of Matta’s “psychological morphologies,” it could very well refer to a war or invasion of sorts of the psyche. The painting itself, however, has few violent implications—apart from the blood-like splashes, it doesn’t appear to be very gore-focused. I personally see many of the forms as highly organic, either plantlike or taking the form of human organs, but not organs under attack or subject to violence. Simply…biological. We know that in the early part of his career, Matta was interested in plant structures, but his interest in other facets of biology isn’t clear. As curator and art historian Mary Schneider Enriquez writes, quote: “As Matta later stated, his art sought to: ‘agitar el ojo antes de mirar,’ ‘shake the eye up before seeing.’ Some techniques he employed to ‘shake the eye’ included articulating the fourth dimension, capturing the microscopic views of plants, and expressing the multifaceted fusion of the worlds inside and outside of the individual.” End quote. This latter idea is what is most apparent in Invasion of the Night, where we see both organic- and artificial-looking forms, and the landscape depicted is both fantastic and somehow familiar, recognizable as parts of our own bodies and of the world around us, but also foreign to our understanding of the world.
So perhaps, then, the idea of “invasion” takes a form in the painting that is unfamiliar to us, but makes sense with a little more context. The following quote from Matta gives us a sense of what form that might be. Quote: “A landscape is at peace whenever there is no visible catastrophe, and yet ecologically, it is violent and devouring. One must grasp what lies behind appearance. Life is not just anthropomorphic, it is also feats of boldness, equations and bursts of energy, affection and desire.” End quote.
The following excerpt, from an essay by art historians and curators Elizabeth A. T. Smith and Colette Darnall, which includes a quote from Matta’s friend Gordon Onslow Ford about Invasion, further illuminates the forms included in the painting:
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“The iconography of this work, as described by Onslow Ford, included ‘objects ejected by a volcano—a floating red stone that is perhaps a knife…a heavy flying bird that is perhaps the thoughts of the moon…a woman imprisoned in an iron corset of her own dreams.’ Another writer has pointed to a red, dragon like form slithering about in the lower right-hand corner against a turquoise background. The dark fluid color that covers parts of the canvas reads as the painting’s subject: the invasion of the night.”
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Violence, or the potential for violence, doesn’t take a traditional form in Matta’s painting, but instead is akin to violence in nature: eruption, survival of the fittest, fantastical beasts bent on destruction. The mere change from day to night is framed, especially in Smith and Dartnall’s excerpt, as an attack. But still, it’s hard to see violence or “catastrophe” in Matta’s image. When I first looked at this image, and wrote my description for this episode, I didn’t feel there was very much violence here at all, and I certainly didn’t view the bright blue swirling around the cave-like yellow space as “night.” I think it’s really up to the individual viewer to determine if this is a violent inner landscape or not—after all, Matta and his Surrealist friends were all about psychology and the unconscious mind, which often makes connections and produces effects in the conscious mind that are specific to the individual and don’t always make sense, at least as Freud described them.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Surrealists were all about Freudian theory, but as Matta was on the fringes of the group, it’s unclear how dedicated he was to Freudian psychoanalysis beyond making use of automatism. One thing we do know was a major influence on Matta’s work was the theory of relativity. Developed by Albert Einstein in the early 1900s, the theory of special relativity in particular got really big in the 1920s, while Matta was still in school, but it continued to have a huge impact through the 1940s, especially in relation to the war effort. Special relativity has to do with the relationship between space and time, something that comes up a lot in discussions of Matta’s work. As mechanical engineer Shini Somara explains in an episode of Crash Course Physics, special relativity explains how time and space appear “differently for different people depending on their frame of reference.” This is all based around the fact that light “always travels at the same speed, [so] time dilates and length contracts to compensate.” Thus, space and time are inextricably connected, and we’re obliged to consider objects not just in three dimensions—length, width, and depth—but also in a fourth dimension, which is the position of the object in time.
Matta takes these ideas out of their strictly scientific context, where their effective demonstration is dependent on objects moving super-duper-extra fast, at a fraction of the speed of light, instead focusing on the fourth dimension and how it can be visualized. “Einstein was as important as Freud” for modern artists, according to Matta, a fact that had been made clear as early as 1936 with the publication of the Dimensionist Manifesto by Hungarian artist Charles Sirató. Though Matta himself didn’t sign the manifesto, Marcel Duchamp, a fellow Surrealist and a great inspiration for Matta, did, so it’s very possible that Matta may have agreed with some of its points, especially given his endorsement of Einstein. One of Matta’s works was recently included in an exhibition at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College that focused on Dimensionism, so perhaps an excerpt from Sirató’s manifesto will help us understand how Matta incorporated special relativity into his work:
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“We must accept—contrary to the classical conception—that Space and Time are no longer separate categories, but rather that they are related dimensions in the sense of the non-Euclidean conception, and thus all the old limits and boundaries of the arts d i s a p p e a r…
ANIMATED BY A NEW CONCEPTION OF THE WORLD, THE ARTS, IN COLLECTIVE FERMENTATION…HAVE BEEN SET INTO MOTION AND EACH HAS ABSORBED A NEW DIMENSION. EACH HAS FOUND A NEW FORM OF EXPRESSION INHERENT TO THE NEXT DIMENSION, OBJECTIFYING THE WEIGHTY INTELLECTUAL CONSEQUENCES OF THIS FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE.
Thus, the Dimensionist tendency has led to:
- …Literature leaving the line and entering the plane…
- …Painting quitting the plane and entering space…
III. …Sculpture stepping out of closed, immobile dead forms, that is, out of forms conceived of in three-dimensional Euclidean space—in order to appropriate for artistic expression Minkowski’s four-dimensional space…
Rigid matter is abolished and replaced by vaporized materials. Instead of looking at objects of art, the person becomes the center and the subject of creation, and creation consists of sensorial effects operating in a closed cosmic space.”
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The Dimensionist Manifesto interprets special relativity’s focus on frame of reference as a focus on the perspective of the individual: as it says, “the person becomes the center and the subject of creation.” A person’s individual perspective and the sensory experience that they have has a transformative power for the Dimensionists that allows the arts to expand beyond their traditional boundaries. This seems very much in line with the focus of Matta’s work, especially his inscapes. Looking at Invasion of the Night with this in mind, we realize just how nonsensical the space depicted is in traditional architectural terms. And Matta, having been trained as an architect and worked in the studio of one of the best-known architects of the period, was very familiar with those traditional terms. He was therefore especially well-suited to breaking down those traditions and instead presenting us with a completely new type of space populated with completely new types of objects, animals, and figures. How we look at, understand, and interpret that scene is entirely dependent on our own frame of reference, and it’s made even more so by the fact that it is a landscape of the human psyche. What can we tell about the mind presented in this painting? Is it disturbed or peaceful? Where are memories contained in this space? Where does thought occur? Where are dreams processed? Perhaps the painting functions like a Rorschach ink blot test, in which everyone perceives something different, and what they perceive reveals something about them. In a way, that’s true of all art, whether surreal, representative, or abstract.
So we’ve got a real weird painting that doesn’t make any logical sense, and it’s kind of got a basis in physics but also in psychology, and maybe there’s an eyeball tree but maybe there isn’t… How does any of this matter to us right now in 2019? How does it relate to a world nearly 70 years removed from it?
One thing we can certainly think about with regards to Invasion of the Night’s contemporary relevance is that psychological, neurological connection. In recent decades we’ve pushed Freudian theory to the margins—mostly because it’s deeply sexist and homophobic—and psychology itself has made great advancements beyond Freud and taken many different forms. People are more curious about their own minds, and it’s less stigmatized to visit a psychologist if you feel you need help managing your mental health. In the last couple of years in particular there has been a great trend toward mindfulness, which Mindful Magazine defines as, quote: “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us… Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful.” End quote. This awareness of what we’re thinking and doing in a variety of situations, not just when quietly meditating, can in theory bring a greater understanding of how we think and react to things, and thus a greater understanding of our minds in general. We are looking at our own minds through our own frame of reference, in relation to our sensory experience, which is very much in tune with Matta’s idea of “expressing the multifaceted fusion of the worlds inside and outside of the individual.” Invasion of the Night and other inscapes by Matta prompt us to consider what our own mind might look like, and how the strange landscape it forms might be connected to our physical body and to the outside world.
Some of these connections are suggested in the forms within the painting itself. The reddish mass with white blobs at upper right, and the trails of dark gray and black running between, through, and around the landscape, are reminiscent of structures within the human body itself, like veins, nerves, the heart, or the contours of the brain. Although Matta only had access to certain types of medical imaging during his lifetime, these forms bring to mind the sorts of forms you might see on a CT scan, an MRI, or an ultrasound. Blob-like forms that appear to float on the screen or transparency you’re looking at are nonetheless a part of the human body, just like Matta frames these blobs and trails and holes and masses as part of the human mind. Matta’s painting gets you thinking about the entirety of your own body, the relationship of the parts to the whole and the inside to the outside, and perhaps most importantly, the relationship between the mental and the physical. These are things that healthcare workers and mental health professionals prompt us to think about all the time, but it’s somewhat different when it’s a painting prompting you to do it.
Beyond Invasion of the Night, Matta’s life and work are relevant to our current moment because they are international, intercultural, and interdisciplinary. Basque ancestry, Chilean birthplace, an early career in Spain and France, a later career that spanned not just North and South America but a good chunk of the Earth, period—Matta experienced so many countries and brought his Latin heritage with him to each one, especially after that early trip to Mexico. Matta painted, wrote poetry, participated in politics, and integrated multiple branches of science and technology into his work, along with Latinx history, culture, and mythology. And then there’s his extensive contact with so many of the major creatives and thinkers of the twentieth century. “How is this guy not a legend?” You might ask. The way that art historians build up a canon of so-called capital-G Great Artists is sometimes opaque, even amongst art historians. The fact that Matta was not strictly a surrealist, and not strictly a member of the Abstract Expressionists once he moved to America, probably played a part. Just as biology classifies organisms within certain families, genera, and species, art historians tend to classify artists within periods, movements, and circles or schools. While biologists nearly always find a way to fit a given organism into their system of taxonomy, art historians haven’t always done so, and in the process have allowed many artists to be pushed to the outskirts of scholarship in a misfit class of their own. Usually, though, especially in our current era of scholarship, it’s only a matter of time before a scholar recognizes a gap in scholarship and takes the opportunity to fill it with one of these misfits, whether they’ve been written about a bit, mentioned a little, or not addressed at all. As proven by Matta’s inclusion in that Dimensionism exhibition at Amherst College, which also showed at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, just because he’s not as extensively written about as his colleagues Duchamp or Dalí, or his friends Neruda and García Lorca, or his mentees Pollock and Motherwell, doesn’t mean that his work is totally ignored or that nobody finds value in it. It just means it needs a bit of a boost to be more widely recognized. Roberto Matta’s life, work, and ability to combine multiple disciplines within a single project are just the sort of things we should look at right now to learn how to better break down the borders between the arts and the sciences.
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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All! You can find a transcript of this podcast, with links to images and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. For updates about the podcast and posts about the art and museum world, check us out on Twitter and Instagram @arthistory4all, with the number 4. Don’t be afraid to send me a message if there’s a particular subject you’d like covered, or an art world person you think I should talk to, and it may appear in a future bonus episode. Subscribe to us on your pod catcher of choice, and don’t forget to drop a rating and review, and tell your friends about us, too! If you really, REALLY like the podcast, please feel free to leave a tip on Ko-Fi, at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall.
This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Keep a look out for new episodes on the last Monday of every month. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.
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Music from https://filmmusic.io:
“Unanswered Questions” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
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 Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Matta,” in Matta: On the Edge of a Dream, ed. Paula Gribaudo and Thomas Monahan (Milan: Skira, 2015), 26.
 Thomas Monahan and Oksana Salamatina, “Matta, the Last Surrealist,” in Matta: on the Edge of a Dream, ed. Paula Gribaudo and Thomas Monahan (Milan: Skira, 2015), 13.
 Elizabeth T. Goizueta, “The Artist as Poet: Symbiosis between Narrative and Art in the Work of Matta, in Matta: Making the Invisible Visible, ed. Goizueta (Chestnut Hill: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18.
 Ibid., 18-20.
 Ibid., 20.
 James Voorhies, “Surrealism | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, accessed May 23, 2019, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/surr/hd_surr.htm.
 Tate, “Automatism – Art Term,” Tate, accessed May 23, 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/automatism.
 Goizueta, 20.
 Mary Schneider Enriquez, “Roberto Matta: International Provocateur,” in Matta: Making the Invisible Visible, ed. Goizueta (Chestnut Hill: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 32.
 Goizueta, 21.
 Ibid., 24-25.
 Enriquez, 30.
 Quoted in Enriquez, 33.
 Smith and Dartnall, “Crushed Jewels, Air, Even Laughter: Matta in the 1940s,” in Matta in America: Paintings and Drawings of the 1940s, ed. Smith, Dartnall, and William Rubin (Chicago : Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2001), 16.
 CrashCourse, Special Relativity: Crash Course Physics #42, accessed May 25, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AInCqm5nCzw.
 Steve Pfarrer, “Art and the Theory of Relativity: New Exhibit Examines Influence of Science on Modern Art,” Amherst Bulletin, April 18, 2019, https://www.amherstbulletin.com/When-art-met-science–Dimensionism-exhibit-at-Mead-Art-Museum-looks-at-how-modern-art-was-influenced-by-science-24538228.
 Charles Sirató, Dimensionist Manifesto, 1936. English translation available online in PDF form at https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/DM%2520Translation%2520library%2520case.pdf
 “Getting Started with Mindfulness,” Mindful (blog), accessed May 25, 2019, https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/.
 Enriquez, 30.