Monday, July 30, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Life before Man - Part 1

What's left to say about Zdeněk Burian? One of the all-time Grand Masters of palaeoart, Burian's paintings have enthralled generations, and have no doubt inspired countless children to become palaeontologists and/or palaeoartists themselves; David's also posted on him once before (please forgive me for covering some of the same ground). Life before Man, with text from Zdeněk Špinar, provides a breathtaking collection of his very best work in which dinosaurs do not completely dominate (which is quite an achievement, given that they are the most awesome and bestest animals ever to have existed ever).

Of course, this is LITC and much as I know many readers will want to see mosasaurs and mastodons and more besides (and they are coming), the dinosaurs have got to come first, and this 'hero Tarbosaurus' is one of the most memorable. It's worth remembering that, although Life before Man was published in 1972, many of the paintings in this book are rather older - sometimes by decades. Burian was ahead of his time in giving dinosaurs more realistic muscles to support their often massive frames, and more dynamic and exciting postures in keeping with their obvious upright gait and adaptations for quick movement - things that seem obvious now, but ran contrary to received wisdom in Burian's time. This Tarbosaurus is noteworthy for its elevated tail and obviously alert posture - it appears to have snapped its head around to respond to a challenger. Even now, although a little outdated scientifically, this beautiful painting (just look at that sky!) is probably the most striking of Burian's dinosaurs. Composition is key, and helps draw the viewer's gaze up to meet the animal's beady eye and flashing teeth. Simply a masterpiece.


Surprisingly, it's not Tarbosaurus on the book's jacket, but rather good old T. rex, depicted rushing to attack a pair of hadrosaurs (labelled "Trachodon", for which you should probably read Edmontosaurus in this case). Again, the animal is depicted in an uncharacteristically active light for the period, taking long strides and with its tail clear of the ground; the hadrosaurs have clearly been taken by surprise. Note also the Ornithomimus fleeing in the background.

Good old Bronto now - an animal that never really existed (at least, not looking like this - with a blunt head and too-short forelimbs), but became a firm fixture in popular culture. In spite of this, Burian renders it as an utterly convincing creature, with a palpable heft to it, bestriding the Late Jurassic plains and putting everything else in the shade. That 'bestriding' is important, as such a portayal of an elephantine, terrestrial sauropod was still unusual at the time. Burian's beast very clearly also has huge muscles with which to hold up its ponderous bulk on dry land. It can perhaps be considered a watermark, so to speak, in the history of these animals in art.

A piece that hasn't aged as well is this one, depicting a group of amphibious Giraffatitan in their natural habitat of Loch Ness. It was always a silly idea, but of course the Burian painting is still very beautiful, providing a wonderful cross-section of this murky, bizarre, somewhat unlikely world. I would also like to draw your attention to Burian's positioning of the animals' nostrils at the front end of their nasal crests, rather than halfway up, which hints at an intuitive grasp of anatomy derived from years of natural history painting.

A very old-fashioned Iguanodon now, alone in a highly evocative moonlit scene. Burian was also remarkable for filling his prehistory paintings with appropriate foliage, something that many artists understandably shy away from as it is quite a difficult, time-consuming task (and I refer to the research more than anything!), but really helps place the animals in their often quite startling worlds. In fact, Life before Man features a number of stunning panoramas that feature nothing but foliage from different parts of the Earth's history, and look just as if Burian had stepped outside and photographed them. Still, there's something for a future post...

Burian's Stegosaurus is more in keeping with his contemporaries', and with earlier works by artists like Charles R Knight - sprawling and tail-dragging. Life before Man makes it possible to see the evolution of Burian's style over the decades - while always sticking with a quite traditional palette, his later pieces are far more refined than this one, which nonetheless remains a notable achievement.

Again, Burian was a great artist, not merely a great natural history illustrator (not that that's to be sniffed at, you understand). Without doing any more than feeding, these Triceratops manage to convey their majesty and power, their different poses subtly suggesting a great swinging head movement, the horns thrust impressively upward (oh dear, I'm at it again) as the animal rips plants from the ground. It just wasn't Burian's style to paint animals in bloody, violent combat, and here Triceratops comes into its own without a marauding tyrannosaur in sight.

Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx feature together in one of Burian's more colourful scenes. Happily, Burian didn't paint his Archaeopteryx with stick-on mini-hands, and so it remains a rather good restoration of this feathered dinosaur to this day. His Compsognathus is remarkable too - poised, with powerful legs and a highly alert air, not to mention a stunning colour scheme.

And finally, an extra special curiosity - a lizardy proto-bird from a time before the dinosaur-bird link was fully accepted. Of course, this very old hypothesis would be vindicated with the discovery of 'four-winged' feathered dinosaurs in China, even if they didn't exactly move about in this fashion (this sort of posture would pop the legs of Microraptor out of their sockets).

Coming up next: up to you, really! Mammals? Other synapsids? Marine reptiles? There's an awful lot to pick from...

16 comments:

  1. Might he be the most-copied dinosaur artist of all time?

    I particularly like his work on extinct hominids -- just as wonderfully done as his dinosaur work, but it has aged a bit better, science-wise.

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  2. Aww, you got rid of the fly on the Bronto's head.

    I would like to see Primitive Synapsids next time

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  3. Impressive Post! Thanks!

    Did you notice that the same picture of this post have a repainted head, tail,and duckbill´s beaks than this picture ( possibly the original painting?) :

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/timetravelnow/5478377402/in/set-72157626014578047

    Buryan did some updates in his paintings, maybe?

    Thanks again.

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    1. The head of the T. rex is different, too. I believe he did sometimes update his paintings to improve their scientific accuracy.

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    2. Rexy's feet have had their obvious heels removed, too.

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    3. The T-rex was originally painted by Burian with 3 fingers and a curling tail, later Burian revised his painting as finally fossilised Tyrannosaur forearms were found.

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  4. I was always awfully fond of his Tertiary... excuse me, Neogene (I haven't aged entirely perfectly, either) big birds. Don't know that there are that many of them, but the Moa and... well I can't recall it name, but last image in this post: http://sunisaxeman.blogspot.com/2011/01/lost-things-decorating-with-they-said.html are two of my favorite of his paintings. The Moa is kind of regal and sad, the latter is brimming with scary action.

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    1. Think that's Diatryma, now synonymized with Gastornis.

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  5. I generally prefer stuff that has aged for seeing how far we've come And my copy of the book (which, btw, features that Tarbosaurus on the jacket - hah!) cleary says his pterosaurs are a very mixed bag, though admittedly there are not many of them (but you may add the mesozoic and neogene birds for a full post), but Pterodactylus provides a special dose of nostalgia.

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    1. Whoops, somehow there's a word missing: "aged badly" it was supposed to say.

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    1. Copycat lol, you copied an idea of a friend of mine, even the exact same photo's, which kinda devious ain't it, eh?
      Du bist icht geil.

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    2. Copycat? I saw the post you refer to on the dinotoy forum, and it's little more than a bunch of images, with minimal writing. Marc offers analysis of the scientific content of the book as well as its place in the history of paleoart.

      This is "copying?" By your reasoning, there should be no professional reviewers of any pop culture, for how dare someone review a record, a performance, a book, or a movie if someone else already has? Why, they're "copying" the original reviewer's idea to review the piece!

      Simply put, if you keep leveling these absurd charges against Marc on this site, I'll block you.

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    3. So more than one person isn't allowed to review the same book now?

      Quite apart from which, I can't copy anything if I don't know that it exists. Which I didn't.

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Trolls get baleted.