Earlier this summer, I visited a quiet park in south London, where families pushed strollers around a small lake, and solitary people read books on benches in the sun. Nestled in the foliage by the water is a curious relic from the Crystal Palace Exhibition which gives the Crystal Palace Park its name: a herd of concrete dinosaurs, lazing with gaping jaws, and standing scaly and proud by the trees. The prehistoric creatures were made by artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in the 1850s, and are recognized as the world’s first dinosaur sculptures. Yet they don’t look quite how we envision dinosaurs today; the Iguanodons appear like rotund iguanas, the Dicynodonts like overgrown turtles, although contemporary knowledge suggests they never had shells.
While their accuracy may vary (and is closer than many give him credit for), Hawkins was working with the most cutting edge 19th-century knowledge on dinosaurs to create sculptures both scientific and compellingly artistic. Paleoart has rarely been considered as part of the visual movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Nevertheless, as writer Zoë Lescaze explores in Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, 1830-1980, out this month from Taschen, it has been vibrantly present, whether in the dynamic Art Nouveau mosaics by Heinrich Harder at the Berlin Aquarium (reconstructed in the 1980s by Hans Jochen Ihle following their destruction in WWII), or the foreboding postwar depictions of mammoths and early humanity by Czech artist Zdeněk Burian.
“I wanted to write this book precisely because paleoart is not a widely recognized genre, even though images of dinosaurs and their world are everywhere,” Lescaze told Hyperallergic. “It’s a fairly new branch of natural history illustration — the first painting of prehistoric reptiles only appeared in 1830 — and I’m interested in how artists and scientists collectively formed our current ideas of prehistory through these images.”
Paleoart is a monstrous book in size, visuals, and design; take off its dust jacket, adorned with Alexei Petrovich Bystrow’s 1933 painting of an Inostrancevia with crimson Pareiasaurus flesh dripping from its teeth, and a scaly cover embedded with a dinosaur footprint is revealed. Tracking down this art was not easy and Lescaze had to delve into a diverse array of institutional and private archives, with some of the pieces published for the first time in the book. For instance, she describes in Paleoart how much of Burian’s “finest works languish out of sight, locked in museum storage” in the Czech Republic. Similarly, Hawkins’s London dinosaurs were abandoned for decades after the Crystal Palace burned in 1936, only later saved from the overgrowth and restored.
“Because fresh fossil discoveries tend to render older works of paleoart scientifically obsolete, many outdated images are neglected, lost, or destroyed,” Lescaze explained. “Some pieces in this book are still on public display, but finding the others involved visiting natural history museums, libraries, archives, universities, and private collections around the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, and Russia.”
Paleoart is arranged chronologically, and flipping through its pages, some which fold out into panoramas of idyllic tableaux of the “Age of Reptiles” or bloody battles of dinosaur chaos, you can see how our idea of what a dinosaur looks like evolved. In one delightfully anachronistic mash-up from 1889, dinosaurs and mammoths mingle together, with one wooly mammoth grabbing a unicorn with its trunk. An incredibly detailed 1984 terracotta installation by Alexander Mikhailovich Belashov at the Moscow Paleontological Museum shows more familiarly lithe and reptilian dinosaurs, but the whole scene of Earth evolution is crowned by the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Adolphe-François Pannemaker in the 19th century also added a biblical tone to his illustrations, with volcanoes bursting and lightning striking in one rather apocalyptic piece, while other artists in those early paleoart days favored the battling ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, their ocean confrontations referencing Victorian naval conflicts. Later in the 1970s to 1990s, Ely Kish painted the mass extinction of dinosaurs and extreme weather environments, her dramatic scenes echoing the contemporary anxiety about climate change and environmental catastrophe. And sometimes the double meanings of paleoart could only be glimpsed by those in the field. An 1897 painting by Charles R. Knight shows two Laelaps (Dryptosauruses) in a fight with claws and teeth bared. Some have interpreted it as a jab at paleontologists and specifically the vicious rivalry between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, two renowned figures who were not above dynamiting each other’s dig sites.
Dinosaur bones have long been a blank slate for projecting the artistic sensibilities, popular media, and anxieties of the day onto their forms. With each reconstruction of the past, a bit of the present is reflected. As Lescaze said, “Paleoart is interesting to me because I think it often reveals as much about modern humans as it does about dinosaurs.”
Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, 1830-1980 was released September 11 by Taschen.