A surrealist sketch of a scene in a ballet. Dancing figures surround a tree, and in the background is a building with two conical roofs and a balcony, from which figures look down on the scene below.

Las majas desnudas (Sketch for Carmen)

lower left:
del carro las majas desnudas de Goya [from the car the nude majas of Goya]
el naranjero [the orange tree]

lower right:
el balcón para la maja [the balcony for the maja]
el techo de cutis [the skin roof]
los chulos negros [the black chulos]

Note: Upon moving to New York in 1939, Matta’s career flourished as he took inspiration from his new home and a circle of contemporary artists and intellectuals. He became transfixed by the opera Carmen, obsessed with the tragic arc of the epononymous character, and he completed a series of works with this theme. This drawing served as a design for an intended ballet adaption of Carmen arranged by Pavel Tchelitchew, a Surrealist artist with a deep interest in ballet who worked as a costume and set designer. Matta described this project in his notebook:

“Lipchitz said in New York that my personality reminded him of Picasso’s personality when he arrived in Paris at the beginning of the century. This enthusiasm and this faith in miracles. Picasso arrived like an innocent with a joy of believing in everything.
We are deformed by the idea of the tragic, we believe poetry and art can only happen from this perspective of life, pain, suffering, martyrdom, heroism, feelings linked to death. Whereas creativity comes from singing.
All those who arrived from Paris and moved to New York, were looking for, consciously or unconsciously, benefits. We wanted to do a ballet around Tchelitchew, probably with Lichine and Balanchine.
Thcelitchew was the most vibrant, with plenty of humor, independence, recklessness, the most Parisian in exile.
I proposed Carmen. Personally, I saw Carmen as the toro of the bullfight; the insurmountable woman for whom the sacred love, is her own execution.”[1]

Matta completed a series of designs for the show, and this one is marked with several stage notes. In one inscription, “las majas desnudas de Goya,” he references Francisco Goya’s painting La maja desnuda (c. 1797 – 1800), linking Carmen to Goya’s iconic subject. Another inscription, “el balcón para la maja” brings to mind Goya’s painting Las majas en el balcón (c. 1808 – 14).  In 19th century Spain, “majos,”“majas” and “chulos” were people considered to be lower class, who dressed in elaborate outfits which were often exaggerations of traditional Spanish dress. They were a favorite subject of many 19th century Spanish painters, and majas were often shown as fiery and flirtatious women, and sometimes as courtesans. Their style of dress influenced the outfit of Carmen, a gypsy, in the first production of the opera by Georges Bizet which opened in Paris in 1875.

In this scene, Matta depicts the dancers in the fanciful costumes of majas and chulos. The male dancers wear britches with colorful stockings and heeled shoes, while the central female figure has a vibrantly colored dress. Her lace mantilla encircles her, held on by the peineta [comb] on her head, which can also be seen on the women on the balcony.

While this drawing served as a set design, it is also exemplifies Matta’s artistic style. The late 30’s and early 40’s were formative years for Matta, as he was embraced by the Surrealists and developed his own vision, exploring spatial dimensions, the psyche, and the structures and metamorphoses of organic forms in his “psychological morphologies.” The composition of this scene has an operatic quality, and the figures radiate a frenetic energy and movement. The whole scene feels alive. The forms of the figures, the landscape, and the structures are all rendered in Matta’s unmistakable style. Discussing his move to the United States, Matta explained, “When I arrived in the United States, I started talking about the earth. In these pictures I tried to show, not landscape which is ‘scenery’– a scene of the earth– but the earth as something terrific, burning, changing, transforming, growing.”[2] Although this ballet was never realized, Matta’s designs create a vivid tableau which are a testament to the collaborative spirit of the era and the influence that his work had on American artists.

[1] Germana Ferrari, Matta, Inter-Morphological Views, Notebook No. 1 1936 – 1944, Sistan Limited, 1987, p. 113 (translated into English)

[2] O. Berggruen, “The Architecture of Desire,” translated by A. Cremin, exh. cat., Matta 1936-1944: Début d’un nouveau monde, Paris, 2004, p. 17

More Works by Roberto Matta