100 Works of Art: (Visual) Black Virtue, Matta

A quick introduction to the concept of the 100 Blog Things can be found at the link. I’m going to use this exercise to talk about how different works of art have affected me and why I like them; don’t look to this for in-depth information or analysis (*ptooey!*) of any of the art I’m likely to discuss, as I am the polar opposite of an expert in anything and will like as not be wrong.

I am dividing up the list of 100 into four sections: Visual art, Audio art, Literary art, and Cinematic art, which should all be self-explanatory categories.

1. Black Virtueby Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren), 1943.

Black Virtue
Black Virtue by Matta, 1943

This piece is on display in the Tate Modern, in the Surrealism rooms among the work of Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and Man Ray, all of whom I also rather like (in contrast I have a profound to the point of irrationality utter hatred of Mark Rothko and will spit nails when asked about his work). It was in the Tate Modern that I first became aware of it, and was so ridiculously affected by it that I froze on the spot for a while and then ran off and wrote a poem about it (called Black Rivet Symphony because I am a pretentious arse).

Incidentally one of the best decisions taken by a modern UK Government was to make national museums and art galleries free to enter; it’s given me the opportunity to keep going back to them and work my way slowly through various collections or to just revisit old favourites on a whim (and to use their nice clean bathrooms).

According to the Tate Modern’s (as ever inadequate) caption, on Black Virtue:

Matta joined the French Surrealist group in 1937 before moving to New York two years later. His paintings appear abstract but are based on drawings of erotic and violent scenes. In the two side panels of this triptych the imagery has a mechanistic, science fiction quality. But in the centre the forms are organic, suggesting references to sexual parts. Matta was concerned with capturing the inner world of the mind. Black Virtue evokes a fluid mental landscape in an extreme combination of eroticism and violence.

I’d disagree with the “science fiction” quality and shoot with “industrial” in general, which seems most likely, and the far right panel to me evokes the jumbled landscape of an imposing city as seen by someone who is pretty damn freaked out to be in the city. It is however primarily the panel on the left which interests me.

The description of the picture as being “organic” in the centre and “mechanistic” on the outskirts doesn’t work for me. The centre may have, at a stretch, yonic or whatever the word is for buttholes-ish imagery, but it’s entirely inorganic and slightly threatening, in the fashion of Giger. The left panel is, to my mind, the one with more anatomical implications.

The thick black areas seem like a shell or a veil through which the thing on the other side is bursting. It is swaddled in some sort of membrane, perhaps skin, against which some outlined mess of bones and red flesh is struggling. It is sexual in the sense that it is sensuous and fleshy, and sickening all at once. There is something both wrong and attractive about it, and the idea of something unformed trying to burst out of itself came across very strongly for me that first time I saw it.

Even on repeat viewings I find that it’s a sort of perverse pleasure that the painting, and specifically the left panel, evokes in me. As a whole the painting gives off a “vibe”, if you will, of something monstrous and unborn, claustrophobically caged: in the first panel it is caged within the body; in the second it is the ghost in the machine; in the third it is the monster trapped in the city of men.


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