Monday, May 28, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Monsters

A slightly unusual entry this week - in fact, it's a book completely devoid of illustrations. Instead, it's packed full of photographs by Jean Philippe-Varin that veer wildly from the artistically impressive to the downright hilarious - usually dependent upon the subject. The best ones feature life-sized models that, while almost always scientifically obsolete, are nevertheless quite awe-inspiring through their sheer size and the craftmanship involved (most of them aren't your usual goofy 1980s fibreglass monstrosities).

The worst photos feature toys. We'll get to those in due course.

The Diplodocus on the cover is certainly very retro, but it's an impressive photograph nonetheless - the detailing in the sculpt is admirable, and the lush scenery is suitably evocative (actually, it reminds me of the Hawaiian locations used in Jurassic Park, although this book - from 1987 - predates the film by some years). There are a number of other models in this book in a similar style although, unfortunately, we are not given any indication as to where the photos were taken (so if any of you out there in interweb-land can tell me, I'd be exceedingly grateful). 

In a similar vein (and colour), here's a Parasaurolophus. Again, it's a pretty nice model for its age, and the photograph is moodily lit. The head is particularly well sculpted, with lifelike eyes and a very fine scaly texture - a commendable piece of work all round.

Of course, there's always one animal that seems to come out badly in these situations.

Ah, Tyrannosaurus - for all its fame and recognition, it's suffered a few indignities over the decades, not least during the 1970s-80s when it was routinely described as a gigantic fanged joke that toddled along at a snail's pace. This book doesn't buck the trend, with author Kate Brasch describing the animal as having "slim" teeth "like blades" that were "probably too weak for attacking other reptiles" - in spite of the fact that (as if I need to tell you) tyrannosaurs actually had very thick teeth that weren't bladelike at all, in contrast with more 'conventional' giant theropod dinosaurs, like the allosaurs. Ludicrous. Anyway, the model's quite impressive from a purely technical/artistic point of view but is waaaayyy wide of the mark anatomically (what happened to its shoulders?). Speaking of which, it's time for an old friend!

It's the elasmothere-styracosaur-thing! He's popped up before on LITC and no doubt will again...later this week, actually. It could well be one of the most prolific (larger than) life-size fibreglass dinosaurs ever, and I'd be very keen to learn of its origin, who sculpted it and why they stuck the horn on its bloody forehead. This isn't a bad photo - while it's far from a dramatic angle and doesn't show off the spikiness of the beast, the intention was probably to create the impression of an opportunistic shot of an animal in the wild.

Speaking of prolific models, I've definitely seen this battling pair before.This is actually a crop of a photo that was taken at far too great a distance and consists mostly of grasses and bog. Crested mosasaurs always raise a smile - they smell sweetly of nostalgia, and possibly fish.

And so, to the toys. Here we see the 1970s Invicta Megalosaurus in its original monochrome green with a very green backdrop, presumably to hide the fact that nobody bothered to paint it for this professional, commercial photoshoot. This extinct beast is now found in the eBay formation, but its original habitat would have been the hot, crowded environment of the Natural History Museum gift shop.

On a handful of occasions in this book, Varin attempts to make artful use of toys silhouetted against landscapes (or in this case, seascapes), thus producing the illusion that they are as large as the real animals. Unfortunately, all such attempts fail embarrassingly. The marine reptiles in the above photo are bad enough, but worse by far are the pterosaur cutouts on a double-page spread dominated by a gigantic spiky desert plant, and the miniscule Corythosaurus (Inpro and Starlux toys) at sunset. Check 'em out:

Still, I always like to go out on a high note, so here's by far my favourite image in the book - a photo of an awesome giant moa model, with an equally impressive backdrop. An amazing creature, a stunning model, and of course it's every bit the big old theropod dinosaur right down to its scaly, tridactyl feet. Lovely.

P.S. Many thanks to Niroot for letting me borrow this book! There may well be more to come...hopefully when I've had a better day at work.


  1. haha, lovely pterosaurs. ;)

  2. Do please share more. They're too good not to. ;)

    Naturally, I'd really love to know the artists and locations behind these too. I'd been wondering about them for over fifteen years since I got this book. It's bizarre that no credit appears anywhere, except of course for Varin's photography.

  3. "Of course, there's always one animal that seems to come out badly in these situations."

    I have to say that's 1 of the derpiest T.rex models I've ever seen.

    "And so, to the toys."

    I actually thought that was supposed to be Iquanodon at 1st.

    BTW, Marc, many thanks for doing these reviews. I too like to collect dino books, some of which (including this 1) I might not have known about had it not been for you.

    1. If you think that T. rex looks derpy, I think you're going to enjoy the Blackgang Chine version very much...

  4. That moa looks good because it's in the New Zealand diorama in the AMNH Hall of Oceanic Birds.

  5. The Corythosaurus would actually be quite nice if they were posed a bit better.


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