Monday, January 7, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: De Oerwereld van de Dinosauriërs - Part 1

Many of you are sure to recognise this one - its original English title was Dinosaurs: a Global View. The Dutch title - De Oerwereld van de Dinosauriërs - translates to something like 'the primordial/primeval world of the dinosaurs', which might sound a little more hackneyed (and possibly cheesy), but in this case actually sets the tone perfectly. If any triumvirate of artists was truly capable of transporting the viewer back to the Mesozoic, it would have to be Hallett, Sibbick and Henderson. What a team!

Originally published in 1990, with this Dutch edition arriving in 1993, most (if not all) of the artwork in this book dates from the preceding decade. Given the amount of, shall we say, ill-informed art that came out of that decade, it's easy to forget the sheer quality of the work being produced by the top-flight palaeoartists of the time (especially if your peculiar hobby is reviewing old dinosaur books for a certain blog). One could pluck any one of the plates from this book and it would be worthy of hanging in a hall and charging an entry fee to see.

As I did previously with the likes of Life Before Man, I'll endeavour to cover a reasonable amount in a handful of blog entries, until such a point when everyone's bored, or I'm threatened by somebody's lawyer. The book's chapters are essentially ordered chronologically through the Mesozoic, but I hope you don't mind me theming my posts around different groups of animals. This week - theropods! (Oh, and if you were wondering, the second-hand section on the first floor of the branch of De Slegte in Apeldoorn is an absolute treasure trove. I'm going back there for another book...)

Mark Hallett's Staurikosaurus seems a good place to start - not only does it deal with a Triassic subject, but is an excellent showcase for Hallett's mastery of the many subtleties that make a restored animal appear lifelike. Intricate details such as the stretching and sagging skin around the animal's limbs, the soft tissues in and around the mouth, and the reflection of light on its scales add up to create a quite uncanny, not to mention very beautiful, portrait of this 'primitive' theropod. I remember a jobbing illustrator's knock-off of this piece appearing in Dinosaurs! magazine back in the day, but of course I didn't realise it was a copy until very recently. Seeing the original after all those years was a revelation.

Unfortunately, my rather small and rubbish scanner can't possibly do justice to a lot of these pieces, and I did deliberate over whether to leave this particular one out. However, in the end I simply couldn't resist sharing at least a small part of it. Therefore, may I present a detail from Doug Henderson's jaw-dropping Coelophysis scene. Henderson is most famous for developing a style in which prehistoric animals are mere components of a much wider, usually stunningly rendered landscape, and so it is here. Although this fragment doesn't show it, this scene is utterly dominated by a gigantic, fallen tree bridging the river, and overshadowed by the branches of another (standing) tree. In the context of the whole piece, the Coelophysis appear tiny and vulnerable parts of an ecosystem on a colossal scale, their swarming numbers melting into the central river. Simply a masterpiece, and one of many.

Back to Hallett, and here two Dilophosaurus struggle over an unfortunate Scutellosaurus. The animals here have a very different 'feel' to the Staurikosaurus - although equally lithe and sleek, their skin appears tougher and more leathery as the result of masterful texturing. It's a violent scene, the likes of which have become something of a palaeoart cliché now, but again displays a superb attention to small details - in terms of the animals' anatomy (check out those legs), their interaction with the surrounding environment, and the environment itself.

Henderson's work is often imbued with a melancholic quality that's very unusual for palaeoart. The monochrome helps, of course, but the composition here is also key. The skulking Ceratosaurus, its back turned to the viewer, displays an air of indifference in spite of the hulking carcass of the sauropod, which cleverly blends into the landscape. A gnarled tree with bare branches and a fallen log frame the animals in the centre. It's haunting - and how many artworks featuring Mesozoic dinosaurs can you say that about?

In addition the illustrations, the book contains a small number of photographs of models sculpted by Stephen Czerkas. The scaly skin of this Deinonychus has certainly aged it now, but its intricate detailing and lifelike quality still impress. Also of note is the arrangement of the hands, with the palms facing correctly inward and folded down (although not back against the arm, as in modern birds). It's remarkably prescient for the time.

I'm running out of superlatives with which to describe Henderson's work. Instead, you can just picture me gawping pathetically, a sliver of drool descending slowly from the left edge of my gaping cakehole. (I'd include a photograph, but I think we'd lose readership.) Regardless, this scene depicts Albertosaurus - not chasing or biting or being stabbed in the guts by anything, but simply taking a leisurely stroll through a stupendously beautiful Hendersonian forest. It's classic Henderson. Niroot remarked how much Henderson's work reminded him, in terms of composition in particular, of Oriental painting. Whether or not Henderson really was influenced by Oriental painting I don't know, but it's certainly lovely to think so.

Speaking of things that look lovely, here's something that really doesn't - Czerkas' Carnotaurus. However, that's only because the animal itself was such a pug-faced weirdo, and is not a comment on Czerkas' sterling sculpting skills. Certain very minor details (the hands) would not be regarded as accurate today, but overall it has aged remarkably well, and (again) has a definite likelike quality. The animal appears pleasingly bulky and fleshy, although not excessively so, and exudes a certain predatory menace.

Although it is seemingly quite rare for Henderson to produce anything as conventional as a scene of predation, he naturally manages to excel at them nonetheless. Here, the familiar tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus launches an attack against the hadrosaur Saurolophus. Against the greens and blues of the hadrosaurs and sunlit river, the vibrant red head of the theropod is a startling focal point. Water was another Henderson specialty, and here it is possible to get a sense of the deceptive power in the flow of the river, as the individual at the bottom right struggles gallantly upstream. In the context of this book, the often quite detached, one might say 'peaceful' and painterly quality of Henderson's work contrasts effectively with the more visceral and immediate quality of Hallett's, and they compliment each other perfectly.

And finally...this is perhaps the most unusual piece in the book and, surprise, it features Tyrannosaurus. If any readers could inform me as to the exact age of this one I'd be very grateful, as it seems to me to be a little anachronistic, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was one of his older pieces. It's gorgeously painted, of course, but the tyrannosaurs have a peculiarly crocodilian vibe and rather long tails, both of which remind me very much of 1970s palaeoart. There's also that Pteranodon, which is...odd.

As for those hornlets over the eyes - could the tyrannosaur in that movie trace that particular feature of its now instantly recognisable appearance back to this painting...?

There's more to come from De Oerwereld van de Dinosauriërs! Please do come back next week, on Monday, or maybe a bit later, depending on whether or not I pull my finger out.


  1. Wonderful opening post to the series. I really enjoy the descriptions of the illustrations.

    A pity that of the triumvirate, John Sibbick's work didn't quite manage to make an appearance in this first post though. ;) Unless one counts part of the cover...

    1. That did occur to me, but there is notably less of his work in here than the other two. And there is the cover :P

      Of course there'll be more of him in future posts.

  2. I have this book (in Dutch!) and it's definitely great in terms of illustrations. Back when I was a dinosaur-fan before I had access to the internet, though, I fell into the trap of thinking the information in this book was mainstream, up to date and what not. It's far from. Of course, this book is much more about the art than about the text in any case.

    1. Yeah, I've avoided commenting on the text in this one, because a) the art is so noteworthy on its own, and b) I'd be very prone to mistranslation ;)

  3. I uploaded a larger scan of the Coelophysis image for you

  4. Thanks Mark. Gorgeous art. Look fwd to when you can get that digit extracted.

    1. Ha, I was going to get all irate for a minute there, then realised you were referring to my last sentence.

    2. Heh, but you would have been justified in being slightly miffed that I mis-spelt your name (sorry).

      On a completely unrelated matter, since the site upgrade, I find that I am unable to comment using Chrome anymore. Whenever I click either "Publish" or "Preview" my comment just disappears from the text box as if I hadn't typed anything (no page refresh). I'm having to use IE (blech).

      I did email chasmosaurs(at)gmail(dot)com about this but rec'd no reply (yes, I replaced the parentheses :-) ).

    3. Sorry Mark, depending on how busy I am when emails come in they sometimes end up buried. This issue is puzzling. I use chrome and have no problems, but you're not the first to report issues. I don't see how the redesign would effect it, as it's just a skin and I'm still relying on blogger's design functions. In all, commenting glitchiness is a major thing that makes me want to migrate to WordPress. But with a new semester starting, not sure if or when that would happen. I will see if any fixes are reported for this. Being a google product, you'd think chrome and blogger would play nice...

    4. Thanks David. I was equally bemused that the skin-change would cause this and, of course, the two events may simply have occurred around the same time without being cause and effect.

      I wonder whether it was the removal of Captcha? Again, can't think why, and I thought that I had tried to comment before you took that off.

      I also agree that intuitively you'd think that Chrome would be fine with Blogger but it's pretty clear that Google's attention is elsewhere as Blogger has a pretty old feel to it. I know it's time-consuming but I would very much support a move to WP when you have time.

    5. Additional info: it's not my Ad-blocker or any such other thing and it doesn't matter whether I try to use a Google acct or WP or OpenID.

  5. I do love these posts. Speaking of Hemderson, I see a lot of Turner in his color work, especially compared to Turner's more details, darker toned work.

  6. You are doing a great job. Very nice. Keep it up this nice job.
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