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Never-before-seen on the international auction market, Matta's "Prisoner of Light" leads Christie's sale
Matta (Chilean 1911-2002), El prisionero de la luz, oil on canvas. Painted in 1941. Estimate: 2,500,000 - 3,500,000 U.S. dollars. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2013.
NEW YORK, NY.- On May 29 and 30, Christie’s Latin American Sale will offer an outstanding selection of over 300 lots from some of the region’s most prominent modern and contemporary masters. The two-day auction includes esteemed private collections and an exceptional offering of paintings and sculpture from important Latin American artists such as Fernando Botero, Leonora Carrington, Matta, Wilfredo Lam, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, and Alfredo Volpi, among others.

Never-before-seen on the international auction market, El prisionero de la luz (Prisoner of Light) (lot 56) by Matta (pictured above; estimate: $2,500,000 – 3,500,000) will make its debut May 29 at Christie’s New York. Painted in 1941, Prisoner of Light was created at a time during the artist’s career when he began to incorporate the violence of nature into his work as a metaphor for the hidden forces that surround us. Here, Matta uses veils of thin wash to create a mysterious environment, simultaneously evoking an actual landscape and an inner psychological terrain.

Painted in 1941, two years after leaving war-torn France for New York City, Matta's Prisoner of Light reveals the artist's interest in developing a means to depict metaphysical spaces. Matta had joined the Surrealist movement in the late thirties in Europe and Andr Breton championed his work in the May 1939 issue of the Minotaure, a Surrealist journal. Along with his friend, the British surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford, Matta became interested in the writings of the Russian esotericist P.D. Ouspensky, and then later with those of the French mathematician Jules Henri Pincar. These writers sparked in him a life-long interest in combining occult notions of time and the otherworldly with scientific discoveries regarding perception and the limitations of three-dimensional space. The surrealist method of automatism inspired Matta to develop his own biomorphic style as he surrendered his hand to spontaneous movements believed to spring freely from the subconscious mind, thus conceptually fusing subject and process.

Matta spent the summer of 1941 working in Taxco, Mexico with Robert Motherwell and through his friendship with the artist Wolfgang Paalen (based in Mexico), he discovered pre-Columbian art and indigenous belief systems. In addition, the spectacular eruption of the Paricutin volcano during his visit left a lasting impression on the artist, who began to incorporate the violence of nature into his work as a metaphor for the hidden forces surrounding us. That metaphor would have been particularly apt at a time when World War II was wreaking havoc on Europe, provoking a mass exodus of artists seeking refuge in places such as the United States and Mexico. In Prisoner of Light flame-like tongues of prismatic color break out of the shadowy black and grey background like lava bursting forth from the earth. Matta uses veils of thin wash to create a mysterious environment, simultaneously evoking an actual landscape and an "inner" psychological terrain that Matta dubbed "inscapes" or "psychological morphologies." Flashes of white pigment illuminate the darkness like lightening, creating a multi-dimensional space that crackles with telluric energy. On the left side of the work, standing sentinel ominously, are faint and early manifestations of Matta's vitreur figures, those totem/robot hybrids that will come to populate his work more from 1945 onwards.

Matta's non-Euclidean spaces hint of unseen dimensions and processes of transformation that reflect both his increasing interest in the esoteric as well as a sense of anxiety regarding the fate of humanity. Is his title, Prisoner of Light, a plea or a magic spell, to keep malignant forces at bay? The next year, 1942, Matta will have a one-man show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York that will receive wide critical acclaim and secure his reputation during this time of exile.

"My work began to take on the forms of volcanoes; it was the way I handled flame that led me to this. Everything I saw was in flames, but from a metaphysical point of view I was speaking from beyond the volcano . . . . I painted what burned inside of me and the best image of my body was the volcano." --Matta, as quoted in Valerie Fletcher, "Matta," in exhibition catalogue Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers, Diego Rivera, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam, Matta (Washington, D.C. : Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in association with Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 243, 245.

Susan L. Aberth, Associate Professor, Bard College, Annanale-on-Hudson, NY

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