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This is a brief, personal view of this great artist, as the work in depth has already been done in Burroughs Bulletin, New Series No. 10, April 1992 where we find a great, definitive and well illustrated article by Robert R. Barrett called, “Fortunino Matania, R.I. -- The Last Victorian” and an interview with the artist conducted by Frank Westwood.
Barrett informs us that Matania “exhibited nearly every year at the Royal Academy and The Royal Institute of Art, and his paintings were usually depictions of Roman life and customs.” This fact confirms my first impressions of his work, which led me to wish that he had created a series of drawings and paintings for “I Am A Barbarian.” His depictions of architecture, costumes and weapons all have the flavor of ancient Rome, which makes him the perfect artist for many of ERB’s novels, which have the same Roman atmosphere lurking in the background of his many worlds.
The thing that is most striking about Matania’s art is its startling realism. His almost photographic style retains the quality of the engravings of the old masters, whic h is often so precise that one gets the impression that his pictures were created by a method of collage. For example, the cover illustration for the Dover edition of “The Pirates of Venus and Lost on Venus” shows a girl in the arms of a winged man that one might well imagine combined the wings of a bat, the head of an American Indian, and the limp body of a girl with arms twisted to accommodate the cut-and-paste method. It’s not that this is not an effective picture -- indeed it is very well conceived -- but the image is so graphically startling that it appears to have been done by another method than by painting alone.
Matania’s art looks old-fashioned to us today. Barrett informs us that “During his life, Matania remained aloof from every enthusiasm that the impressionable art community might be smitten with: post-impressionism, symbolism, expressionism, cubism, surrealism. For all of these ‘schools’ he had an austere and pragmatic scorn. One will find no trace of these ‘isms’ in any of his work. For him, they might well have never existed.”
For this reason alone, Matania might well be the perfect Burroughsian artist, for the literary style of ERB remained similarly in the backwaters of the 19th Century. The literary critic always runs into a brick wall when he tries to compare ERB’s work with his contemporaries simply because he was an anachronism who continued to write like a Victorian despite his many enthusiasms for modern inventions and discoveries.
We might easily imagine Matania illustrating the works of Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard or H.G. Wells, for this is the genre of early science fiction that is most like the works of Burroughs. Indeed, many of Matania’s pictures look as though they had been lifted directly from illustrations for works by Verne, Haggard or Wells.
If J. Allen St. John had not done all of his famous work for ERB, we might well be singing the praises of Matania as his greatest illustrator. Had Matania been given the early commissions that St. John obtained, we might well have an entirely different view of ERB’s work -- one that more firmly tied him to a classical past and much closer to a graphic realism.Nkima
See Part 1 in ERBzin-e 253
BILL HILLMAN .
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