Thursday, January 28, 2016

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs, National Geographic, January 1993

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...

20 comments:

  1. Gurche is God. I have a one hundred pieces´s puzzle with this cover.

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  2. Wow, so much nostalgia! My dad collected Nat Geo for ages and I remember every one of these images (and especially remember loving the sculptures)

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  3. Love this issue..I poured of those images forever when I was a kid. Thanks for the shout out too Marc, much appreciated !

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  4. I believe the Albuquerque Allosaur was sculpted/transported by Dave Thomas, who also sculpted the bronze Pentaceratops & Albertosaurus in front of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

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    1. Dave Thomas, huh? I was wondering what had happened to him. I loved him as "The Beaver" in SCTV!

      :)

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    2. You'd be correct!

      http://www.nmsr.org/acrodino.htm

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  5. I love how Gurche emphasises the skull structure in his dinos.In his T-rex he follows the artistic tradition which I rather like of highlighting the horns and bumps. All the dinosaurs, but particularly the tyrannosaur have real character. It certainly seems more real than Bakker's impossible eight ton ballerina.

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  6. Is there really anything impossible about the pose of Bakker's eight tone ballerina? Interesting that Gurche always depicted dinosaurs with leathery rhino and elephant type hides not scales even though scaly skinned dinosaur skin was well known then. Today we have a similar situation with feathers being put on anything and everything...

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    1. I agree about the feather thing. Thank God noone has tried to put them on sauropods yet. Or has that been done? Oh God I hope not. About old Rexy - it strikes me as strange that some scientists, Bakker being the foremost, in attempting to illustrate them as active creatures make them even more active than modern mammals. Who's ever seen an elephant pirouetting and leaping through the air? Besides straining credibility it's not even necessary. A large ponderous theropod had no need to be much more rapid than its more ponderous prey: sauropods, ceratopsians, stegosaurs, etc.

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    2. "Is there really anything impossible about the pose of Bakker's eight tone ballerina?" I am not an expert, but I have read that the thigh bones (femurs) of the theropods couldn't swing back much further than perpendicular to the hip bone. (It had greater freedom to swing forward.) So the leg that the Denver T-rex is standing on is pulled back much further than the actual animal could have managed -- the thigh-hip joint would be dislocated. If it could rear up like that (maybe using its tail for support?), the right leg would be more bent rather than stretched almost straight; it wouldn't be reared up so tall. At least, this is my understanding, from reading.

      On a lesser scale, the "palms" of the forelimbs are facing down/forwards rather than towards each other -- the theropods were "clappers, not slappers." I've seen the mount up close when I visited the museum in Denver -- you can see how the radius and the ulna (the forelimb bones) are twisted to enable the pose depicted.

      For all that, it's an impressive, terrifying pose.

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  7. I'm stealing Ozymandosaurus immediately and you cannot stop me from doing this.

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  8. This was the article that introduced me to the Dinosaur Rennaissance; I still can't open the increasingly worn pages without the same strong feelings of awe and even reverence I felt reading it as a kid.

    Incidentally, I remember reading an interview or something with the guy that sculpted that Allosaurus, but for the life of me I can't remember who he is. A copy of its head sits mounted like a prize moose on the wall across from the Allosaurus skeleton at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

    I want to say I saw the interview with Al's artist in the lovely book "Hunting Dinosaurs" by photographer Louis Psyhoyos: http://smile.amazon.com/dp/0679431241/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=1A57E92XKV40Q&coliid=I30WUVNSERWWAX

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  9. That does bring back memories, I swear I had that edmontosaurus painting as a jigsaw puzzle. Might still be kicking around somewhere in the house too.

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  10. I have this volume too.

    "The Deinonychus gang resemble those that, sadly, still hang around the NHM (London)'s dinosaur gallery in an increasingly dilapidated state;"

    That reminds me: Have you heard the news about the NHM's dinosaur gallery?: http://newviewsonoldbones.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-shape-of-things-to-come.html

    "unfortunately, it would appear that the Deinonychus gang is still going, too."

    For what it's worth, their other dromaeosaurs are more up-to-date (E.g. Remember the Velociraptor pack in the "Dino Jaws" exhibition?).

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  11. Man, the memories are flooding back. Is it "GurCH", "Gursh" or "Gur-chee"? See, I'm a tour guide at the Field Museum, and he did the Sue portrait in the main hall

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  12. Man, does this bring back memories! I stared at those paintings and photos so much as a kid I probably left eyemarks on the paper.

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  13. That is still my very favourite colour scheme anyone ever gave a tyrannosaur.

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  14. I love term "deinonychus gang" and will do whatever I have to use that as frequently as possible.

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  15. Thanks to the staff at this place for making our event so enjoyable and if I ever get married. I know where to go! Great job all of you. Price was not too bad, considering the quality of food and beverages. Everything at venues in NYC was excellent.

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