The last time I looked at an old issue of National Geographic, it was from 1978, when the ideas put forward in the Dinosaur Renaissance were starting to take hold in the popular imagination. Fifteen years later, and Vol. 183, No. 1 shows just how much progress had been made. What's especially fascinating about this issue of Nat Geo is that it not only looks at the current state of the science, but also how dinosaurs were enjoying a resurgence in popularity among the general public at the time, in turn offering an insight into contemporary trends in palaeoart. Which means John Gurche. Lots of John Gurche.
Although not the only artist to partake in this Dinosaur Special (more on the others next time), Gurche's stupefyingly detailed paintings accompany the main magazine article, and his nesting Saurolophus stares out from the cover. From a technical standpoint, Gurche's work often remains mind-boggling - his paintings frequently resemble elaborately staged photographs of scale models, such is his mastery of light and shadow. Of course, his dinosaurs are also very much products of their time, just as much as anything from 1978. The Saurolophus remains gorgeously painted, but is quite hideously shrink-wrapped by modern standards - particularly around its face, which would give Rameses II a run for his money in the spine-chilling dessication stakes.
Gurche's typical aesthetic is very well known among dinosaur art enthusiasts, and he seems to have a tendency to paint hyper-detailed brown wrinkly things in dustbowl environments, such as these pachycephalosaurs. It's obvious that the 'Gurche look' was virtually lifted wholesale for many of Jurassic Park's creatures, especially the brachiosaur; his website states that he worked on the movie, in a role that other online sources describe as 'consultant'. (Unfortunately, the Jurassic franchise's unwarranted conservatism led to '90s-era Gurche-o-saurs hitting the big screen again last year, but Gurche can hardly be blamed for that. And I digress.) All these years later, this work still looks extremely convincing, even if a great many of the animals portrayed probably didn't have quite such elephantine, leathery skin.
While the pachycephalosaur painting might be the most stereotypically Gurchesque among those featured here, the aforementioned Saurolophus scene does also feature rather uniformly brown creatures in a largely arid environment, albeit with some absolutely spectacular lighting going on back there. But that's far from all he can do.
In the above scene, we are invited to adopt the perspective of a clutch of small cynodonts as they scarper to avoid the gaze of Herrerasaurus. From their point of view, this relatively small dinosaur - shorter than an adult human - becomes an enormous, looming, and terrifying threat. It's fantastically effective. Here, the dinosaur enjoys its (literal) day in the sun, bathed in light, while the proto-mammals are reduced to cowering in the shadows.
The article covers the usual narrative of the dinosaurs' rise, fall, and rediscovery ("I am Ozymandosaurus," and all that), while also shedding light on remarkable recent discoveries, many of which have overturned old notions about what dinosaurs were like. As such, Gurche here illustrates an Arctic scene from the Late Cretaceous - juvenile edmontosaurs are stalked from the trees by a fascinatingly sinister tyrannosaur. The crisp wrinkles on the hadrosaurs are none-more-'90s, but for my money the tyrannosaur remains a wonderful piece of work. It can be difficult to imagine how such large animals were able to conceal themselves from their prey, but Gurche brings the scenario to life in an utterly believable way through a superb use of perspective, shadow, and cryptic camouflage on the creature. Aspiring palaeoartists may also like to note how having a predator calmly contemplating its strike is actually far more exciting (not to mention realistic) than having it roaring and slobbering like an idiot. Less is more, and all that. (Oh, and beautiful backdrop, too.)
Something more on that 'pop culture resurgence', now. The article features a glimpse into the workshop of Kokoro, a Japanese manufacturer of robo-saurians. And bloody hell but if they aren't quite uncommonly beautiful to look at. Why can't we have more exhibits with robots like these? I mean, apart from the fact that I'd go broke. The Deinonychus gang resemble those that, sadly, still hang around the NHM (London)'s dinosaur gallery in an increasingly dilapidated state; I can only imagine that Kokoro supplied them back in the day. Incidentally, Kokoro are still going, and now have an operation in America - unfortunately, it would appear that the Deinonychus gang is still going, too.
There's no word on who made this model, but never mind - that's an awesome photo. Shot 'somewhere near Alburquerque', apparently, a city that I still can't envisage as being a real place that exists outside of Looney Tunes. The model being transported here has actually aged rather well, too, mostly thanks to its correct forelimb orientation. It also reminded me of a dinosaur park I'd heard about over in the States, which reminded me that it's in trouble (red tape, it would seem) - it's a shame, as it's reliant entirely on donations, has increasingly well-researched models, and has clearly brought a lot of joy to local kids. Go and buy owner Chris a beer, why not.
And finally...it wouldn't be a '90s article about dinosaurs without that photo of Bob Bakker posing next to that Tyrannosaurus mount (in Denver). Which looks really cool from this angle, but a little silly from others. Hello ma baby, hello ma honey...