Antonia Matos: Controversial Artist of the Human Figure

La obra de Antonia Matos.
Francisco Aguirre Matos and Desirée Berger de Aguirre. Guatemala: n.p., 2002.
ISBN: None.

Antonia Matos (1904-1994) is an almost forgotten artist in Guatemala. Her name is known among family members and a small circle of people in the arts who place her alongside Valenti, Mérida, and Garavito. She has only two solo exhibitions to her credit — Paris and Guatemala City during the early 1930s. A tribute twenty years ago and two retrospectives, one in the 1990s and another earlier this year, have focused attention on her career. La obra de Antonia Matos, a recent publication by a nephew, makes the artist’s life and work more accessible to the public.

Matos attracts controversy. As an art student in the 1920s, she poses for the sculptor Rafael Rodríguez Padilla, and her likeness appears on the four nude female figures holding up the Castillo family mausoleum. The Egyptian-style columns are censored with the addition of a pelvic girdle, and she is saved from scandal. A decade later when she returns from Paris as an established artist, an exhibition of nudes causes an uproar. She is ostracized by both her social class and the art community. Matos responds by retreating to her studio, painting only for herself, and not showing another work again for fifty years. The nudes give way to indigenous subjects, landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Even death cannot shield Matos from current debates over Decreto 27-2002, the so-called Obscenity Law. Recently, the Post Office objects to two of her nudes on an invitation and refuses to deliver the cards without envelopes.

Matos defies easy classification. In Paris, she enrolls at the School of Fine Arts, becoming the first Latin American woman to be granted admission, and she joins the Society of French Painters as one of its members. Her one-woman show is acclaimed by critics. She meets Picasso and befriends Mérida. In Guatemala, the artist is blacklisted (reparation is a belated gesture), and most of the paintings remain in her possession during her lifetime.

Matos1Matos2Among these paintings is a double-sided canvas with a portrait and a nude. To appreciate the two requires flipping the work on its head, an unusual format perhaps alluding to censorship. The lady in the portrait sits, leaning slightly to her left, facing the viewer and staring into the far distance. A single braid falls over the right shoulder. Her legs are crossed, left over right, creating a balance between the upper and lower body. The right hand rests on the left and closes the triangle. The sitter is a study in simplicity — no jewelry except for a single strand of beads that mirrors the shape of her face. A plain backdrop accentuates the profile. Pattern is found only in the Cobán-like huipil, but the corte creates a counterpoint with a solid area of color. The nude is a studio model who straddles a stool draped with a green cloth. The focus is on her supple back and buttocks. The woman leans on the extended right arm and tilts her head to the left. The gesture gives a faint twist to the back and makes for a diagonal axis. Light bounces off the bare skin in contrast to the ochre background. Both paintings are classic Matos interpretations of the human figure against unadorned settings where color and light emerge as her true subjects.

La obra de Antonia Matos is neither a biography nor a catalog raisonné. Matos demands critical analysis and a more professional presentation. She needs to be studied in the context of other Latin American women artists like Frida Kahlo from Mexico or Tarsila do Amaral from Brazil. The next feminine icon may just be from Guatemala.

One thought on “Antonia Matos: Controversial Artist of the Human Figure

  1. Estimado Señor,
    acabo de leer el presente articulo sobre Dueña Antonia Matos de Aycinena, publicado en agosto de 2002.Lastima, pues podria ilustrar con mas obras de Dueña Antonia, pues tengo una coleción de 13 de sus cuadros: cinco desnudos, dentre los cuales el premio de Paris (1930), ´´la cosecha de cocos´´ (que ilustró la invitación), 2 naturalezas muertas, mercado de Chichicastenango, baile quiché, 2 auto retratos y una fuente.
    Lo felicito,

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