Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Miracles of Matania - (Fortunino Matania, that is)

Check out any book on drawing, attend any art class - the rules are always the same, when it comes to creating an illustration or any work of art requiring a depiction of anything approaching recognizable form and you need to take the thing in stages, building up from the first tentative lines and gradually work into what you've got, erasing the bits that don't work and focusing your energies on the bits that do.

It's really logical, as you progress you're giving yourself more clues as to what is needed and overcoming the psychological barrier of the large white and very empty space that has been so inhibiting your attempts to flesh out your fantasies.

There are however some artists who are so gifted that they can easily eschew these dictums. I've only seen it once and that was many years ago when I witnessed a very young John Watkiss, take a brush and ink and render up a perfect Sam Slade (as in Robohunter) portrait in a matter of moments. When I marvelled at the speed with which he'd accomplished this awe inspiring feat, he responded quite matter of factly that he had to work fast because after a while the image that he could see so clearly on the paper would start to fade.

There are few examples of this kind of ability but one such artist whose progression through an illustration of mind blowing complexity was carefully documented, was the Italian illustration maestro Fortunino Matania. When Percy Bradshaw, who like Matania was extremely driven and precociously talented (they were both practicing as illustrators in their mid teens) set up his Press Art School and accompanying correspondence course in 1905, he set about documenting the working methods of many of his contemporaries.

When Bradshaw's attention turned to Matania, the First World War had just commenced and Matania who was already working for the mass circulation magazine The Sphere, was their premier war artist. He had already visited the front and was bringing the unfolding drama to life in a series of neo photographic images rendered in pencil, wash and gouache. Bradshaw wanted to record Matania's working method by photographing each stage during the creation of one of these masterieces, which were to be reproduced as a series of plates bound up for his series of artist's portfolios. The aim was to demystify some of the working practices of illustrator's studios and bring them to the attention of a wider public many of who had only the fuzziest cognizance (if any) of how pictures were created.

When Bradshaw arrived at Matania's London studio, which in some respect was like a monument to antiquity, filled with reproductions of classical furniture, shelves sagging under the weight of historical books, he was probably more amazed than his readership at how Matania set about the task of bringing to life events in Belgium as the German army in the late summer of 1914 were streaming through Belgian towns and villages in their attempts to seize the initiative, conquer France and win the war by Christmas.

Had Matania followed the precepts of the Bradshaw school of illustration, or any school of illustration for that matter he would have gone down the route of carefully mapping out what was to be a typically complex Matania scene of Uhlans being hobbled and generally (if only temporarily) thwarted by a hastily flung together street barricade, manned by the tattered remnants of the Belgian army and a stray dog.

But no Matania's modus operandi was just to disarmingly throw in some tentative pencil lines and then and almost in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle, paint in portions of the picture which he could see already on the paper.

Needless to say Bradshaw was more than a little impressed, if not slightly stunned by the experience.

I'll be looking at a little more of this phenomenal artist but this as they say is just a taster.

A book on Matania by Stuart Williams and Geoff West (who I am indebted to for providing the startling imagery for much of the material I will be laying out before you) is in production as I type and should be appearing soon published by Book Palace Books - an essential addition to any library shelf.


  1. Any fan of Frank Bellamy will want to know that Matania was Bellamy's favourite artist - and he was lucky, because he met his idol! Nancy Bellamy told me so, in conversation a while back! Looking forward to this book and thanks for the preview

  2. Good to hear from you Norman and talking of the amazing Frank Bellamy, might be worth mentioning that Book Palace Books have already published both Bellamy's comic strip adaptions of Robin Hood and King Arthur with his stunning Look and Learn series of World War 1 illustrations, The Story of World War 1, due for publication next month.

  3. Has any progress been made towards publishing this book?

  4. There is going to be a major feature on Fortunino Matania running in illustrators 3 also published by the Book Palace which is now print ready and will appear in April. This particular issue of illustrators will be a forerunner to the book, a lot of work has gone into this feature and it really will be (promise) a very nice foretaste of the book itself.