Monday, November 26, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs - a Lost World in Three Dimensions

I adore pop-up books - which will no doubt be down to my more childlike traits - and pop-up books featuring dinosaurs, doubly so. Dinosaurs - a Lost World in Three Dimensions is from 1984 (a mere three years before I existed!), and was 'devised and designed' by Keith Moseley, with illustrations from Robert Cremins. Although clearly aimed at children, the target audience is definitely older than that for the previously reviewed Dinosaurs: a Pop-Up Book, and the artist obviously treated the job pretty seriously. It's dated very badly scientifically, but remains a beautiful and charming book nevertheless.

The front cover exemplifies the style of illustration you'll be seeing here - scenes that are carefully detailed and have a lovely painterly quality, but are also rather sombre and moody, thanks mostly to a swampy, brown-green colour palette. It's also clear that, while very few of the pieces are obviously derivative, Cremins' main inspiration came from old palaeoart rather than looking at up-to-the-minute scientific reconstructions. The animals are quite anachronistic-looking even for the early 1980s, and there are a few rather strange errors. It's a good thing he hid the long, snaking tail on that Triceratops pretty well...

All that said, the main interest here isn't in the illustrations, fetching as they might be - it's in the pop-ups. A number of them are simplified skeletons, reminiscent of those wooden model kits that you can still buy in gift shops in unlikely places, and very nice they are too. They give a decent idea of the shape of the animal in three dimensions, without being overly fragile, as intricate cut-out art tends to be in the hands of children. Note also the expertly painted reflections in the accompanying illustration - very impressive. The animals might look a little strange but, hey, at least they look like they belong together (cough).

Emphasising the sheer size of sauropod dinosaurs by having them stand next to modern animals is a fine tradition that's still going strong. While most artists might include an African elephant (as it's the largest extant land animal), here we are presented with no fewer than four large African mammals, popping out of the page only to prove how puny they are. It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity to not have the sauropod's neck jutting out at the viewer, but the elephant's ears are a neat trick. The brachiosaurs are undeniably retro (the Zallinger and Burian riffs are pretty obvious - check out that individual in the background), but at least they're not sitting in a swamp.

A plesiosaur now, and you've got to appreciate the light filtering down, the streams of bubbles and the terrified fish, even if the reptile is rather monstrous, with a weird overhanging lip. At least it's not pulling an 'up periscope' manoeuvre. The skeleton is quite well done - it actually reminds me of the juvenile Cryptocleidus in London's Natural History Museum - and is an excellently assembled pop-up.

Sadly, while Tyrannosaurus makes it into the book (of course!), it doesn't get a pop-up. It's also depicted as horrendously fat, seemingly about to squish this unfortunate hadrosaur...thing by belly-flopping on top of it. This particular illustration definitely could've done with a little more homework behind it. On the other hand, it was seemingly quite rare for the big beast to be depicted as anything other than a slowly-shuffling, corpse-nibbling lummox back in the early 1980s, so at least it gets to indulge in a little predation here.

The theme of the above page is 'herbivores strike back', and it's a brilliantly simple idea that's superbly pulled off. Pulling each of the tabs makes the attached dinosaur perform an action - the Stegosaurus raises its spiked tail, the Triceratops headbutts, and the Ankylosaurus swings its tail club out at the viewer. It's all great simple fun, while simultaneously informing the reader about likely dinosaurian behaviour. Why, I've been sitting here for hours simply pulling these tabs over and over, rocking violently in the corner of the attic in which they keep me and giggling maniacally to myself. (No, not really. Not yet, anyway.)

Another excellent pop-up skeleton, this time of Allosaurus - you'll note the obvious pubic 'boot', stout neck and bulky ribcage (the perching toe's a bit odd, though). The animals in the accompanying illustration are perhaps best described as 'fanciful', their lizardlike heads in particular owing very little to the real thing. Nevertheless, it's a stunningly painted scene, the peaceful nature of which is quite refreshing. It's always a pleasant change to see predatory dinosaurs snoozing in the shade, and their contented faces are just superb.

This bright green Archaeopteryx might be my favourite pop-up in the book, and is certainly the most in-your-face. Although its tail is necessarily truncated, the famous feathered dinosaur is lovingly painted and, due to its small size and striking appearance, an excellent choice for this type of treatment. Moseley's also to be commended for noting that "without its feathers, Archaeopteryx is exactly like other small dinosaurs of that time" (my emphasis), at a time when the dinosaur-bird link was still underplayed in popular books.

And finally...this Parasaurolophus pop-up skeleton might be the best in the book. Certainly, it is the one that has best stood the test of time, thanks to its quadrupedal posture and excellent attention to detail; it's obviously based on the real Parasaurolophus walkeri type specimen. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the illustration which, although once again a fantastic demonstration of artistic ability, must have seemed rather old-fashioned even at the time. Judging by the expression on that Parasaurolophus' face, though, he's well aware of that. Have you ever seen a 1950s-style hadrosaur ever deliver such a withering, disdainful look? You might be judging him for his leathery, noodle-necked appearance, but he's judging you right back. That's what you get when you critique old dinosaur books, you know - after a while, the dinosaurs start looking right back into you.

I'm back off to my corner.

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