Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Private Lives of Animals: Prehistoric Animals - Part 3

Since we've already looked at everything that's more important, let us now turn to the Cenozoic mammals of the wonderful Private Lives of Animals book on extinct beasties. And where better to begin than with a ground sloth with hair so wonderfully painted, you'll want to reach through the screen and run your fingers through it? (Just watch out for fleas and dandruff.)

As you will already be well aware, it's obligatory to restore Megatherium standing upright against a tree, with its hands gripping the branches; even the model in Crystal Palace Park is posed like this. Still, it makes sense to give an impression of the animal's massive size, and it is considered a likely feeding habit, as far as I'm aware. Although it's a very straightforward illustration of the animal in its environment (with a minimal background to make room for the text), this might just be one of my favourite illustrations in the book for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. It's probably that aforementioned beautifully textured fur, or the curling, gnarly, realistic quality of the tree. It looks like it could've been drawn from life, all the more because it isn't photo-realistic. If it wasn't painted by Burian, it's certainly worthy of him.

Following the format of the rest of the book, Megatherium's 'profile' is followed by a page of illustrations depicting its behaviour, contemporaries and relatives, living and extinct. Here begins the trend of illustrations depicting a group of humans throwing things at some unfortunate soon-to-be-extinct animal. Another illustration depicts two Megatherium under attack from a pack of 'wild dogs', and having watched documentary footage of wolves taking on buffalo, I really don't fancy the dogs' chances too much (no matter what the text says).

A sandy-coloured Smilodon might seem eye-rollingly inevitable in a book like this, but at least the illustrator's done a fantastic job of it - this would make a wonderful book cover or poster. As well as obviously being very exciting, the pose helps emphasise the animal's hugely powerful and muscular forelimbs. The faces (especially of the individual in the background) are well-observed and very convincing, although they may be a little too like living big cats in areas like the placement of the eyes. The text is, of course, weird. Vampire Smilodon!

You may have been hoping to see some depictions of speculative Smilodon social behaviour - perhaps a mother with a litter of cubs, or a handful of animals chillin' in the feline fashion. Well get out of here, hippy! Private Lives is all about the bloody violence - it's what the kids want. Note that this page features one of the few illustrations of hominids in which they are on the losing side (in this case, thanks to Machairodus rather than Smilodon). The depiction of the tussle with the mega-elk is particularly awesome.

What other huge mammalian predator generally springs to mind when one imagines a pop culture 'Ice Age' setting? Giant cave bears, of course. This is a perfectly serviceable illustration (and look! Babies!), but does little to hint at the horror that will unfold on the following page.

Neanderthals versus Bears: the Fire and the Fury. Once again, we have a scene of hominds ganging up to hit some poor furry thing with sticks, but in this case, the furry thing ain't gonna take it lying down. As bats scatter everywhere in panic, a gigantic bear prepares to do its bit to ensure that only one Homo species will make it into the Holocene*. Wonderful, savage, highly evocative and action-packed stuff - gotta love it.

Carrying on down the 'Ice Age' checklist, we come to The Mammoth. Presumably the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius. A fine enough painting, but there's something a little strange about it - I think it might be the trunk (and a perspective issue).

Two of the additional mammoth illustrations aren't terribly exciting, with the animals depicted in a rather indifferent fashion, hanging out in the far distance. This all changes, of course, when there's terrible violence involved. This painterly evocation of the BRUTALITY OF MAN looks like something out of an unusually violent Ladybird book, and I mean that in the best possible way. Like the bears v Neanderthals scene, it's very busy and full of energy. I believe the mammoth is meant to have fallen into a trap, but it almost looks like it's struggling amid a raging tempest.

And now...oh boy. It's time for the evolution of MAN. Although at least we're treated to one of the few illustrations that is definitely by Burian (confirmed by the signature); as usual, his depiction of Homo erectus is quite distressingly lifelike. It's not quite up to the quality of the work in Life before Man, but this illustration of (presumably) 'Java Man' is suitably uncanny in its not-quite-human qualities - like looking into the eyes of a gorilla or orang-utan in the zoo, only worse.

Here the always florid text (translated from the original Italian, although apparently other translations are similar in tone) veers into alarmingly racist territory. In fact, it implies that the different 'races' of modern humans are effectively different species, or at least subspecies, which makes about as much sense as voting Conservative on the basis of Theresa May's promises. (There you go, that's my "irrelevant, intrusive political mithering" taken care of for this post.)

And's the 'ascent of man'. Happily, we are here given a glimpse into the 'private lives' of Neanderthals, beyond tormenting bears with torches; a charming illustration depicts a family group, while the text mentions their advanced culture and tool-making skills. Of course, it was the "descendants of Cro-Magnon man", rather than the Neanderthals, who went on to become "masters of the Earth" (nothing like a bit of 1970s hubris!). The text implies that the illustration at the bottom left depicts Cro-Magnons, but I rather fancy the original intent was to show a stage in the progress of their descendants - given that horses weren't domesticated until many thousands of years later.

As for the astronaut - bless.

*I'm aware that this depends on your view of the taxonomy. It's a joke, damn it.


  1. The "races of men each descending from Homo erectus" comes straight from the now obviously debunked polycentric hypothesis of the 1940s. You can thank Franz Weidenreich for that one. The multiregional hypothesis from the early 1980s has small influences from this earlier work.

  2. Hey! That Smilodon is a copy of the Ringling Brothers' tiger.

  3. Holy jeebus that Cave Bear hunt! All it needs is a title like "CAVEMAN HOLOCAUST" in big, bold, B-movie lettering.

  4. Oh joy! Thank you Marc. I agree that Megatherium is gorgeous. Don't you just wanna hug it? It's a shame he doesn't get as much attention as the dinosaurs. No doubt there a palaeontologists who just love prehistoric mammals but can't get a look-in because of those pesky Mesozoic reptiles!

  5. "(There you go, that's my "irrelevant, intrusive political mithering" taken care of for this post.)"

    You're coming across as a petty, bitter man, Marc. The thing is, I already picked up that impression from all your Ben-Elton tribute-act asides that came before. (Not exactly a spur-of-the-moment complaint, this.)
    It's not your personal politics - your targets could be May or Corbyn or Trump or Ghandi for all I care - it's that you seem incapable of leaving them at the door for what are otherwise very entertaining looks at retro palaeoart and things. Maybe you get a lot of back-slaps for your random topical wit, I dunno; but personally, I've got Private Eye for that.

    1. The problem might just be that I read too much Private Eye myself. "Ben Elton tribue act" though - ouch! In my defence, it's not as if I'm devoting great swathes of my posts to attacks on the Tory party, much as I'd like to. Can't you indulge me the odd remark here and there? For the sake of venting my bitterness.

      And apologies for the little personal jibe, I love ya really. (No, I'm not being sarcastic - I appreciate your readership.)

    2. As this is a blog about passé, extinct species of dinosaurs, I think these comments are perfectly valid.

    3. "It's not your personal politics - your targets could be May or Corbyn or Trump or Ghandi for all I care - it's that you seem incapable of leaving them at the door for what are otherwise very entertaining looks at retro palaeoart and things." From my vantage point it seems you are being too sensitive. It's not as if Marc's posts are all political jabs on after another. He inserts jokes rooted in subjects other than paleo when it works. To me, that's part of his unique charm.

  6. Pardon my butting in - but it's Marc's blog - he can say what he pleases as long as he doesn't frighten the horses. 'Petty and bitter' he is not.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I see some images directly copied from Matternes and Burian's pieces, namely the Megatherium scene and the cave bear.


Trolls get baleted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.