February 27th – Jane Matreack’s Day

Today all across Buentoille, you’ll see people pawing through their rubbish, picking out the occasional item, throwing most of it back in. Recycling collections are a particular focus of activity. Today is also the day Jane Matreack, the famous artist and bin collector, was born. The vast majority of her works can be viewed in The Collection, a large publicly owned gallery in the City centre, although some are kept on the walls of the Union of Refuse and Associated Workers’ kitchen, which is today opened to non-members for lunch.

Born in 1825, Matreack is one of those sad cases where the artist did not achieve the praise and notoriety they deserved until after death. Indeed, Matreack suffered great abuse at the hands of the art community, who refused to accept her work as ‘true’ art. Her mother and grandmother were both bin collectors, both part of the Union of Refuse and Associated Workers (URAW), and so she followed in their footsteps, but it is clear that, from a young age, her true passion was art. At the time becoming an artist was less easy; the art schools all charged extortionate fees, and almost all of the galleries would only accept submissions from people with a degree, no mater the quality of the artwork. Had Matreack been born a hundred years later she would no doubt have been immediately offered a place at one of the (now publicly owned) art schools. As it was she lived with rejection all her life.

Whilst her most identifiable works are collage, there are some early examples of sculptural mobiles made from bones she collected during a short stint as a rag and bone woman. The bones are stark white, with contrasting black stripes painted onto them in bone-black paint she made herself. In some of her paintings, coffee grinds and other such natural refuse are also used as pigment; there is a clear theme of reuse running through Matreack’s work, indicating a different view of the City from her contemporaries. Her subjects were often of famous buildings in the City, but of their servants entrances, bin storage areas, the back door of the kitchen where the plongeurs smoke.

Despite these less-than-auspicious subjects and materials, Matreacks paintings manage to be truly beautiful. The figures in her paintings are almost always working people, yet they are always at rest or leisure. One of the paintings on URAW’s kitchen wall, ‘Sunburst on Franklyn Cutthrough’, is of two bin collectors, a man and woman, sitting on the edge of the bin cart, eating sandwiches and laughing. They are in a dingy street, the walls stained and mouldering, but a shaft of light falls between the tall buildings, illuminating their faces.

Unsurprisingly, an art world obsessed with wealth and grandeur, with little class consciousness, was quick to dismiss these works. Matreack learned early on that they would never display her work, but she kept making art in her spare time, and submitting it to prestigious galleries regardless. In 1856 she was collecting rubbish from a block of flats that was known to house many famous bohemian artists. In the collection she found a near-finished Esterban painting (many now will not have heard of Guilliame Esterban, but at the time he was considered one of the most influential artists of his generation), the only problem with which was a small paint splash over the central figure of the work. She took the painting home, fixed it, and submitted it to a gallery as her own work. It was not even looked at twice before it was rejected. This experience was to provide inspiration for her most famous set of works, the Collages.

The Collages are a number of figurative collages made from the discarded works of other, then more famous, artists. Artists at the time had a tendency to throw out anything they deemed ‘imperfect’, meaning that there was plenty of material for Matreack to work with. The beautiful naked figures of Esterban’s works mingle in the streets with faceless troops of workers from a Rocheau, the surrounding ornate buildings clearly cut from a Medanee canvas. These collages are frequently surreal, with floating figures and impossible architecture, and scale seems immaterial. Somehow Matreack has taken these paintings ostensibly focussed on bohemian, middle class life, and made them works that celebrate the working class. The glue used was made by Matreack herself, from bones and other such detritus.

Whilst those Buentoillitants searching through their bins today are unlikely to find a famous painting to cut up, but they do make ingenious collages from their refuse nonetheless. These are then collected at midday in the regular refuse collection, and displayed together on the ground at Heirarch’s square. At midnight they are then taken away to be destroyed, assuming they have not been collected for display elsewhere. Space is left in between each collage so that all can be viewed individually or as a whole. Whilst most of these collages take their cues from Matreack’s Collages, there are usually a few which have an entirely novel style, and others which are seemingly inspired by Matreack’s final group of works, ‘Buentoille 1868’ or the ‘Leap Year Collection’.

The Leap Year Collection are three hundred and sixty six wooden display cases of varying sizes, each showing a number of items taken from rubbish collections on each day of a leap year. All have a small bronze inscription that records the date and name of whoever threw away the items contained within. Many are anonymous, little collections of broken toothbrushes, newspapers, chicken bones, and toothpicks all appealing set out on green or red baize. Those that are named are often focused upon most, especially as a few are famous personages; the ballerina Vhika Ford is recorded with an unopened letter from a lover, a dried bunch of flowers, three empty bottles of tonic, a small gathering of toenail clippings, a box of rat poison, eight used matches and a copy of the famous romance novel Her Cadence and Breath, showing signs of extensive water damage. Some of the more strange boxes hold twelve gold teeth, a clearly loved stuffed toy, a death mask, a first edition of Samuzar’s Ravings sans cover, an exquisite pearl brooch, and a dead cat. As the original name suggests, Matreack intended the work as a recording of the City as she saw it, and in many ways it is most similar to those early works, of refuse collectors sitting on carts, of plongeurs smoking against stained walls.

To this day, Jane Matreack is remembered as a visionary, a person who saw Buentoille for what it truly was. Despite the fact that she saw little or no financial success of renown in her lifetime, Matreack died a happy woman; it seemed that the pleasure of creating the work was reward enough for her.

Other festivals happening today:

  • Dwane’s Glitch Space

  • The Counterlapsarian Society’s Gala Ball