There are a batch of paintings in the rich and varied oeuvre of Roberto Matta which are among the best Surrealist paintings. These are part of his “social morphology” series created in the 40’s -50’s, and were a reaction to the horrors of World War II. What I find particularly striking about them, and which I think makes them fresh even today, is that he created his own universe inhabited by insectoid, mechanical beings, which are, however, obvious stand-ins for us humans. Not only is the subject matter original, but so is the treatment, which is somewhere between abstraction, expressionism, and near cartoonish outlines. It is the rare artist who succeeds at creating unique subject matter and painting it in a unique way. This is something Picasso did as well, including in his dabbling with Surrealism, but Matta did it more extensively, and, for my tastes, better.

Here’s an outstanding example:

Octrui, 1947 141 x 195 cm.

I love the counter with buttons on it. The creatures – obvious stand ins for humans – each have different heads and bodies. Some are female, obviously from the breast shapes, but the genitals, clearly visible under the counter, look like the leaves of Adam and Eve were switched out for insects. The woman in the center is blessed with a cricket. Each creature has but one eye and its head is integrated with some sort of helmet. The white, female figure on the right looks like her arm, and another appendage, are being stretched on some sort of torture device, with her hand affixed to a board above her head.

Let’s look at another one.

Crucifixion, 1947.

I had no idea what the hell was going on in this painting until I found a copy with a title, and discovered it’s a crucifixion theme. The most intriguing part for me is the relation between the orange/brown figure in the center, and the complex thing to its left which it is clutching with its long arms. This encounter could be violent or/and sexual. The three figures in the front are eating, and it smells of cannibalism. There appears to be a blue figure in a cage in the background. In there way these paintings are as bizarre and otherworldly as the works of H.R. Giger while working in a fine art, painterly tradition rather than a illustrational one using airbrush. Consider the monster below:

Language for Cats, 1945

This personage, wringing his hands spectacularly over his head, appears to be eating a female figure, which is being maneuvered into his mouth via insectoid appendages. At the same time he seems to be held in place by some sort of contraption. The title is “Language for Cats”, in which case the formations extruding from the figure’s mouth could be some eructation of syllables.

“It’s a Pity” of 1946 could portray a domestic squabble:

It’s a Pity, 1946.

The couple in “Breadfast Received” of 1948 seem more at piece with each other, but like a couple astronauts in a space ship or space station. Though, if I follow the title, they segue into prisoners receiving their daily gruel.

Breadfast Received, 1948.

Matta’s most ambitious painting in this cycle is probably “Being With” of 1945. This piece is much more complex that appears at first glance, when we are a bit overwhelmed by the oranges, reds, and greens. Inside a drama is unfolding, and you can see some sort of royalty in the upper right sitting on their peculiar thrones. Creatures are being tortured throughout, the most conspicuous victim being the figure on the left, splayed, and hanging upside down on a red square. You can click on the image to get a larger view.

Being With (Etre Avec) 1946

Here are several more choice examples:

Le cyclopedic 1954
Metamatician 12, 1947
The Boxers, 1955
Untitled 1948
The Chess Player 1954

And for those who made it this far, a little something special. Here’s a work in progress I’m doing based on Matta’s work, and his “Octrui”, of 1947 in particular. Here I’ve created the line art, and the coloring and shading are yet to come. Of course I had to change it substantially so that it would be mine, but still show an obvious indebtedness to Matta.

Tribute to Matta, work in progress.

I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it. I sorta’ lost interest after doing the line art, in which case I have to force myself to work on it. Lately I don’t much work in stages like this, and don’t like to “color in” something I’ve created as line art. I have more of a speed painting approach. But, just for the exercise of it and to keep my skills sharp, as well as expand my horizons a bit, I should probably work at this as part of my practice exercises. It would get interesting for me again in the later stages.

~ Ends

4 replies on “The Insectoid Figurative Gems of Roberto Matta

    1. Oh, man, I’m so glad someone gets it, and even noticed my drawing at the bottom.

      You may in fact be the second person to have seen that drawing, me being the first. Anyway, I’m working on some other things, but your comment got me thinking about this one, and how I already did the hard work, maybe. Think I’ll take a crack at putting it in color tomorrow.



    1. Glad you like them. I think the art world has skipped over something marvelous here because this work doesn’t fit in with popular ideologies. But why would it, when it’s so individual and unprecedented?


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