Black Virtue is an oil painting made on three canvases that have been joined to form a long, horizontally orientated triptych. Each of the three parts of the triptych is a different width, resulting in an asymmetrical composition. The dominant colour in the painting is black, with further areas of red, green, blue, purple, brown, yellow and cream. In the two outer panels, the painted forms are largely abstract. The pictorial space of the panel on the left-hand side is articulated by floating fragments of black planes that open up the perspective into an organic, amorphous, cavernous space. In the narrower right-hand section there are fragmentary planes, some of which are laid next to one other, while others give the impression of partially overlapping on a flatter surface, without creating the impression of a deep perspectival pictorial space. In the central canvas, which is the widest, the painted forms are more linear and biomorphic than those that flank them. They are set against a black background and some of them take the shape of female sex organs.
This work was painted at Cape Ann, near Boston, in 1943 by the Chilean artist Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren). In 1971 Matta stated that although he could not recall the exact significance of the painting’s title, it might ‘even refer to the so-called virtue in wartime of killing the enemy’ (quoted in Wilson 1975, p.16). The large areas of black in the painting may also allude to death (see Wilson 1975, p.16). Around the same period that he made Black Virtue, the artist worked on several other triptychs that the curator Ronald Alley has suggested were ‘based on the idea of introducing deliberate contradictions and opposing different elements, somewhat in the tradition of triptychs by Old Masters with a central panel and contrasting wings’ (Alley 1981, p.503). In a letter of 18 August 1971, the art dealer Pierre Matisse wrote that Matta made two other such triptychs the same year as Black Virtue was created: Prince of the Blood (Tragyptic) and Redness of Lead.
The artistic strategy of opposing different and even contradictory elements was inspired by the surrealist principles of automatism and free association. In order to achieve these effects, Matta made his paintings by covering over one part while he painted the next. In the period that he made Black Virtue, Matta was also working on an experimental project in ‘correspondence’ with the French poet Charles Duits. In this project, Matta would make a drawing and Duits would write a poem at eleven o’clock every morning, after which they would compare the results. Parts of the imagery of Black Virtue relate to a certain extent to some of these drawings.
Matta joined the French surrealist group in 1937 under the encouragement of the movement’s founder André Breton. He became acquainted with key surrealist artists and published articles and illustrations in Surrealist journals such as Minotaure. Art critic and curator Simon Wilson mentions that in this painting Matta ‘was concerned with capturing the inner world of the mind’, claiming that ‘Black Virtue evokes a fluid mental landscape in an extreme combination of eroticism and violence’ (Wilson 1975, p.16).
Simon Wilson, Surrealist Painting, London 1975, p.16, reproduced pl.47.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.502–3, reproduced p.502.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘Resistor: Surrealist Roberto Matta Interviewed Before His Death’, Tate Magazine, no.4, 1 April 2003, reproduced, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/resistor-surrealist-roberto-matta-interviewed-before-his-death, accessed 10 June 2016.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.