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Homage to the murals of Jay Matternes.



You’ll hopefully forgive my immediate nostalgia but when I was maybe
ten or eleven my brother wanted me to see something he'd found in the
section on Texas geology in our collection of encyclopedias. As I
walked over he seemed to anticipate the excitement I was going to
express when I saw what he was gazing at; in those pages were detailed
copies of Jay Matternes’ Smithsonian prehistoric mammal murals. I
looked awestruck at the dazzlingly bizarre spectacles on display and
the inordinate realism given to each era and subject. The painted
murals covered every major epoch of the Cenozoic and with profound
detail and realism illuminated fauna big and small from each subjected
period. Though I found them all fascinating I then, like today, found
the Pliocene Missouri Basin mural, with its panicked animal subjects,
darkened and roiling storm clouds, and juxtaposed light and dark
counterchanges, to be my undisputed favorite of the six; it has a
chaotically moody quality rarely found in the genre. Years later I
agreed to go to Washington D.C. with members of my family—not to see
the Lincoln Memorial and what not—but to view, like on some paleoart
pilgrimage, the murals that had impressed me so as a child. From the
viewing of these images in a book as a child to seeing them up close
and personal as a young adult I vehemently attest to the fact that
these murals are collectively the single greatest works in the short
history of paleoart; no other work I have ever seen has offered such
fidelity of realism, accuracy, detail—both faunal and physical—and at
the same time such vastly epic scale as these works; I can say with
confidence that cumulatively in all these categories no other work has
ever even come close.
Still, it’s strange that no archosaur-illustrating paleoartist, and
their have been so many since Matternes painted those murals, has even
tried to rise to meet the challenge—no Milton to his Homer, or Leone
to his Kurosawa to his Eisenstein, or Rockwell to his Leyendecker to
his Parrish—and painted the Mesozoic’s fauna on equally vast and
Byzantine terms. Though it may be because of reluctant exhibit
directors I think it more likely stems from the lack of scope and
scale on the part of the artists’—myself included—as well as the
simple fact that we have so few near complete faunal assemblages,
representing both the magnanimous and miniscule, from the Mesozoic.
Certainly we have the Chinle here, and the Liaoning there, but these
are spread out disparately to the four winds over various continents.
More to the point we have nothing close to a continuous knowledgeable
flow of evolution for the dinosaurian fauna of North America—the
continent with which The Smithsonian murals particularly illuminate—as
glaring omissions stand in our way, namely periods such as the middle
Jurassic; we know so little from that time period for North America
that “the dinosaur fauna of the middle Jurassic of North America” as a
description almost has a humorous novelty aspect to it.
Perhaps sometime in the distant future, when we’ve excavated faunal
assemblages as good as or better than the Judith River or Morrison for
most of the major periods of the Mesozoic, some child will grow up
inspired to create works as grand as those crafted by Matternes all
those years ago. Perhaps.