Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Life

Let's face it, the majority of kids' dinosaur books around at any particular time can be pretty hard to tell apart. As has been discussed countless times here and elsewhere, this is typically because the illustrators involved, often with little knowledge of their subjects, resort to copying a very few renowned palaeoartists. Therefore, not only do animals attain a fixed 'look' that can be very hard to shake off, there is something of a stylistic uniformity in the artwork.

Happily, Prehistoric Life is one of those books that broke free from stylistic convention...for better and worse. But mostly better.


What might otherwise have been a rather bland paperback for the more discerning anklesnapper is completely transformed by Robert Gibson's illustrations. They have a feel of constant motion about them, and are rather reminiscent of the work of the wonderful Victor Ambrus (as was pointed out to me by a certain illustrator friend). That's not to say the animals don't often look pretty grotesque, of course - that much is evident from the tyrannosaur on the cover - but there's much to enjoy in this unusual take on the Kids' Dinosaur Book.


Just look at that volcano! I'd love to proffer a more intelligent comment, but I'm afraid I'll have to point out how much it reminds me of Vincent Van Gogh's painting of an exploding TARDIS. Gibson's style, with its precisely controlled swirling disorder, couldn't be better suited to depicting the earliest moments of life on Earth. There is something fittingly dreamlike in this depiction of a time so completely mysterious. Oh, and the protozoic thingy is properly lovely too. Like a gloopy flower.


For whatever reason, only Gibson's Mesozoic beasties take a stylistic turn for the fancifully gruesome. It may be because it's impossible to make Dunkleosteus look anything more like a child's drawing of a Really Scary Fish, but his depiction of Devonian sea life is really quite sober-looking. (It also looks rather familiar, mind you, so I look forward to the first commenter pointing out which artist's work it's cribbed from.) The vibrant colours are a delight - in fact, it's only just occurred to me that the majority of restorations of prehistoric sea creatures seem to depict them in the forbidding murk, murderising the guts out of each other.


Even so, the most memorable illustrations in this book are most definitely the monochrome ones, and 'murky' is a certainly a word that can be applied here. For whatever reason - and in spite of the fact that the text is actually very accurate for the time - once the book hits the Mesozoic, all sorts of animals dating from across tens of millions of years are thrown into the same scene. Naturally, the above illustration's all about the porky Diplodocus, so it's a little odd to see an unusually crocodilian Kronosaurus flopping about at the foot of the page. Understandably, the poor plesiosaur is wearing something of an humiliated snarl, like a shaven-headed gentleman who's just had an embarrassing accident in the street. What's particularly odd about this is that elsewhere...



...There are perfectly happy plesiosaurs, splashing about in their element like 'partly submerged submarines' (huh?). Of course, this one is upstaged by the impossibly adorable ichthyosaur, which should be given its own cartoon show post haste. There's something quite brilliant about that huge eye, shooting you the look of utter disdain that you surely deserve. Oh, and Gibson's style is, once again, perfectly suited to creating a succinct impression of tumultuous surf.


In order to encourage you to forget the fact that I just wrote that: it's a Hypsilophodon in a tree! But what's this obvious Neave Parker rip doing here? I've no idea, but let's all take this opportunity to marvel at how Gibson brings a wonderful gangly strangeness to the forms of pterosaurs. They might have too many fingers, but these Quentin Blakeified visions are far superior to any skeleton gliders. Also, roadkill "Proavis". Ha ha, charade you are.


Archaeopteryx makes an appearance too, and in spite of its having too many fingers, still manages to look considerably more dignified than in many other depictions, before and even since. This is perhaps because the monochrome format prevents it being painted as a flamboyant Sparkleraptor, and it hasn't been given a preposterously lizardy head. The feathers are rather well drawn, too - they are convincingly birdlike, rather than scraggly and haphazard. In spite of the hands, this is a real bird rather than a chimeric monster - although you don't have to look very far for them.


Ah yes, Tyrannosaurus rex, that unrepentant Killingyoubeeste. It's an image that's so utterly wrong, and yet so deliciously right (although mostly the former, admittedly). There's a distinctive Burian/Parker influence in the animal's rather ample, stooped frame; it was likely Burian's work that informed the huge thigh muscles. But never mind that - just check out the mouth, with teeth like Satan's zipper, around which there is only a vortex of pure despair and liquefied stegosaur entrails. Something about this illustration of tyrannosaur feeding habits reminds me of the frantically scribbled artworks produced by the inmates of insane asylums - as if Burian collapsed into bibbling madness and was locked in a closely-monitored room with only his art materials for company. In short, it's ever so slightly bonkers and very frightening.

In addition, Stegosaurus didn't live at anything like the same time as Tyrannosaurus. But you know that, your friend's nephew knows that - in fact, anyone who isn't as bafflingly deluded as Ken Ham knows that. So never mind, I guess.


And finally...humans! Fortunately, it really is only the Mesozoic animals that are drawn in quite such a scary fashion, and so these humans, proto-humans and, er, a Neanderthal are notably less nightmare-inducing than they might have been. In fact, the Modern Man on the right is actually rather handsome. "Hey girl. You know, Homo neanderthalensis wasn't ancestral to Homo sapiens; in fact, they evolved from a common ancestor." Yes. In any case, here's a commendable display of the artist's skill in creating humans and not-quite-humans that steer clear of the dreaded valley that is uncanny - I really hope someone gave Robert Gibson a book on human evolution to illustrate at some point. Now that would be a find!

Coming up next: an entire Album of Dinosaurs. Looks like fun...

16 comments:

  1. Just to divert shockingly off-topic for a moment, asylum inmates have been been known to produce the opposite kind of work, too: microscopically, maddeningly detailed paintings such as those by Richard Dadd. This could well be a fair indicator of my own direction...

    As monstrous as many of the animals in this book are, I still find it an altogether refreshing dinosaur book for that very departure from stylistic convention that you mention.

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  2. That Neanderthal is straight out of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit cartoon.

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  3. That Pterodactylus looks like a fish after a day in a smoker. It hanging upside-down doesn't help.
    Tree-dwelling Hypsilophodon and Proavis in one frame? I nerdgasmed.

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  4. "Naturally, the above illustration's all about the porky Diplodocus, so it's a little odd to see an unusually crocodilian Kronosaurus flopping about at the foot of the page"

    More to the point, what is the Carboniferous Hylonomus doing in the Mesozoic

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    1. This is also an odd thing, yes.

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    2. Beat me to it. Also, why does it look exactly like a monitor lizard?

      All that stuff aside, these are truly wonderful illustrations. Sometimes I find you guys to be a bit effusive in your praise, but it's well-deserved here.

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  5. The tree dwelling Hypsilophodon looks familiar - is it lifted from Adrian Desmond's "Hot Blooded Dinosaurs" or something of that vintage? I seem to recall the original being a mirror image of this baby.

    Man's development (sic) was extraordinarily white from a very early date...

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  6. I just noticed how horrified the fish under the Duncleosteus [sic] looks.

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  7. I think crowding everything onto a page in a children's book is a pretty common thing to do when you have limited space to present a broad topic.
    So as much as we see this as inaccurate, it's about convenience and keeping it interesting.

    I really like the style, I like the mess and the variety of tone and visual interest that provides.(textured brush strokes, mmmmm)
    The dinosaurs are charmingly bonkers.

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  8. Always a thrill to see how research that was still in its early stages when books were written has progressed since (in this case the lifestyle and flying ability of azhdarchid pterosaurs).

    And thanks for reminding me of the "unrepentant Killingyoubeeste".

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  9. Illustrating a book about prehistoric life is a big challenge, I'm sure, but also a dream gig. Love these illos.

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  10. Another book I had - Christmas 1978 if I recall ? Even at a tender , I was outraged at a T-Rex & Stegosaur in THE SAME SCENE ! AND told the person that gave me it so , in no uncertain terms . There reply was party fossilised & Rexy didn't mind a bit of rotten meat !!! Lies told to Children or what - and this was after I'd seen BBC's Life on Earth ....

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  11. Another book I had - Christmas 1978 if I recall ? Even at a tender , I was outraged at a T-Rex & Stegosaur in THE SAME SCENE ! AND told the person that gave me it so , in no uncertain terms . There reply was party fossilised & Rexy didn't mind a bit of rotten meat !!! Lies told to Children or what - and this was after I'd seen BBC's Life on Earth ....

    ReplyDelete

  12. Another book I had - Christmas 1978 if I recall ? Even at that tender age , I was outraged at a T-Rex & Stegosaur in THE SAME SCENE ! AND told the person that gave me it so , in no uncertain terms . Their reply was that Stego was partly fossilised & Rexy didn't mind a bit of rotten meat !!! Lies told to Children or what - and this was after I'd seen BBC's Life on Earth ....

    ReplyDelete

  13. Another book I had - Christmas 1978 if I recall ? Even at that tender age , I was outraged at a T-Rex & Stegosaur in THE SAME SCENE ! AND told the person that gave me it so , in no uncertain terms . Their reply was that Stego was partly fossilised & Rexy didn't mind a bit of rotten meat !!! Lies told to Children or what - and this was after I'd seen BBC's Life on Earth ....

    ReplyDelete

  14. Another book I had - Christmas 1978 if I recall ? Even at that tender age , I was outraged at a T-Rex & Stegosaur in THE SAME SCENE ! AND told the person that gave me it so , in no uncertain terms . Their reply was that Stego was partly fossilised & Rexy didn't mind a bit of rotten meat !!! Lies told to Children or what - and this was after I'd seen BBC's Life on Earth ....

    ReplyDelete

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