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A portrait of love's labor.

WHEN AN EXHIBITION of Roberto Matta Echaurren's work opened at the Parkerson Gallery in Houston, Texas, in early 1991, few people knew that the drawings, paintings, photographs and letters of the celebrated Chilean artist harked back to a distant youthful romance. And that the whole show was largely due to zealous custody of those precious keepsakes maintained over the years by the girlfriend in question, Lilian Lorca de Tagle. More important, however, is that those youthful creations show Matta to have been a painter of great talent even before he left Chile for Europe and fame in the 1930s.

Lillian Lorca, a former official of the United States government now retired in Austin, was the muse to whom Matta dedicated these works when the two were living a youthful idyll in Santiago six decades ago. Years later, Matta confessed to the Chilean philosopher Roberto Carrasco Pirard, that his involvement with Lillian "was much more serious than an infatuation." The saving of early works of one of the greatest surrealist painters of our time has all the hallmarks of a great love story, but it is also rooted in the passion which both Matta and Lillian felt for art.

"We met the way people meet in South America. We moved in the same circles. I had just returned from Europe and he had completed his training as an architect at Santiago's Catholic University," reminisced Lillian, an elegant septuagenarian who has not lost her Chilean accent despite the more than forty years she has lived outside her country. "In talking with him I realized he was much more interesting than all the other young men I had known." Matta, in turn, has said that Lillian "was much more cultured and closer to what I was deep down," going on to describe everyone he had met before her as "completely illiterate."

Enthusiastically interested in art, Lillian had what she calls "a little more to talk about" than most girls of her era, and she soon felt attracted by Matta's fascinating personality. But she quickly learned that an old family feud stood in the way of any close friendship with the artist. Nevertheless the idyll continued in secret ("Some girlfriends helped us to meet.") and blossomed thanks to their shared interest in the arts.

Lillian, who was also studying art, encouraged Matta to perfect his painting and drawing skills. Meanwhile, the artist was trying to establish himself as an interior decorator, a line of work for which he did not appear to have much aptitude. Outside of Chile one usually hears little or nothing about that period of his career. Most of the artist's biographies omit that stage of his development. Some U.S. and European critics even maintain that Matta did not paint during that time, a view which the Houston exhibit contradicted.

Lillian asserts that during this period Matta was strongly influenced by Hernan Gazmuri, a disciple of the cubist French painter Fernand Leger (1881-1955). That influence is evident in early works such as the 1933 Portrait of Lillian Lorca, especially in the almost transparent background of delicately bluegreen tones which frame the face.

During her surreptitious friendship with Matta, Lillian encouraged him not only to draw but also, with Gazmuri, to go to Europe to continue his career and develop his true vocation. Without knowing it, she was setting the stage for her separation from the artist. Lillian maintains that Matta left Chile in May of 1935. On this point she specifically cites letters that were returned to her from Panama. Matta, however, has given the year of his departure as 1933. He later admitted, "I would have liked to have taken off to Europe with Lillian but I couldn't because she was only 19 years old."

It was the artist's intention to go to work as an apprentice in the workshop of famed architect Le Corbusier. However, according to Lillian, Matta went to Europe out of frustration; "he had already outgrown everything available to him in Chile." Nothing came to the plan to work with Le Corbusier, but some letters of recommendation from Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and the Spanish artist Joan Miro proved helpful. Although he generally had to struggle and even go hungry more than once, Matta finally became a protege of poet Andre Breton, one of the founders of the school of surrealism.

Matta soon won fame as a surrealist painter in Paris, where he lived with exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. During this period, he travelled extensively in Russia and Spain, the latter already in the throes of civil war. In 1939 Breton stated that each painting by Matta was "a revel at which anything can happen, a pearl transforming itself into a snowball." However, Europe was in political turmoil. In 1940, Matta followed the advice of his friend, painter Yves Tanguy, and moved to New York City to explore its avant-garde art world.

Once settled in New York in 1940, he began to teach surrealist painting techniques to North Americans of his generation--Jackson Pollock among them--and his international fame grew. Collectors such as the philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim opened the doors of the art world to him with their friendship and support, and together with Max Ernst and others he became part of the tightly knit artists elite of the city during World War II. Many, however, would later belittle him and claim as their own ideas rightfully attributable to the Chilean master.

Over the years, the correspondence with Lillian had grown less frequent and finally ceased altogether, although from time to time she still heard of his comings and goings. The girl left behind in Chile was almost forgotten and so, probably, were those early drawings. "I stopped writing to him when I realized the family hostility was unyielding," Lillian now recalls. That family hostility had at times taken a harsh form and indeed endangered the very survival of Matta's works, which were saved by an almost providential episode. The intervention of a maid ("I don't know if she did it for me or because she realized that the pictures were of some value.") prevented Lillian's mother's from deliberately burning the only drawings and paintings representing the first age of the famous artist's career.

The relationship between Roberto Matta and Lillian Lorca lasted for about five years from 1931 to 1936. Then they lost touch until, in 1948, a friend invited her to meet the artist again briefly in Santiago. At that time Lillian was a married woman and Matta a highly renowned figure in international art. Lillian says Matta was in Chile working on a major commission from a collector. "We talked for a long time. It was a very good meeting. I saw he was still the same spontaneous, talkative person I had known." She adds that when they said goodbye Matta asked her to wait a moment. "He took a knife and cut a rectangular piece out of the middle of the canvas. He told me, I want you to take it, I want you to have this remembrance of me." In 1952 Lillian settled in the United States and brought Matta's drawings and paintings with her.

The fragment which the painter gave her in Chile has remained together with the works of Matta that she devotedly guarded for so many years. Lillian and Matta, living on different continents, never saw or communicated with each other again. Rodolfo A. Windhausen, an Argentine journalist based in New York, is a correspondent for the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio and writes about art for several publications in the United States and Latin America.
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Title Annotation:Lillian Lorca's preservation of Roberto Matta's works
Author:Windhausen, Rodolfo A.; Daniels, Willem
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Words:1268
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