Monday 24 February 2020

The Alien Prehistoric World Trope: Part 4 - Familiar Beasts?

This is part 4 of a series. If you have not read the previous part, please do here.
Fig. 1: A young Rudolph Zallinger (1946) standing in front of his nearly completed mural, just to give you an idea of its size.
Last time we stayed in the dinosaur-cinema of the late 30s and early 40s, but as these will grow into increasingly stale stop-motion affairs in the following decades we will instead return to the world of artwork. In 1947 a major piece was finally completed after having been worked on for almost 5 years. The Age of Reptiles is a gigantic mural painted on the eastern wall of the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s Great Hall. The museum was first founded in 1866 by George Peabody as a sort of gift for his nephew Othniel Charles Marsh, whom we have met in part 2. In 1925 a new building, the Great Hall, was opened to house the gigantic mounted skeletons which Marsh had uncovered. Many of these still stand there today, including the Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus. In 1942 oceanographer Albert Parr, then director of the museum, noticed a big problem with the hall. The large, grey bones in combination with the large, grey concrete walls made for a rather drab and unappealing look. He wanted to decorate the walls with some paintings that showed the dinosaurs in life restoration. At the time a young man of the name Rudolph Franz Zallinger was illustrating fossil algae for Parr. Zallinger was born in 1919 in Irkutsk, Russia, as the son of an Austrian war-captive and a Polish railway-engineer. When he was still a baby his parents fled with him to the US, where Rudolph would go on to study Fine Arts at Yale University, leading to him getting this job at the Peabody Museum. Lewis York, professor at Zallinger’s art-school, suggested to Parr that Rudy could do the job. Zallinger accepted and suggested that instead of creating many smaller paintings, he should instead make one giant mural across the entire eastern wall that shows the progression of time. His technique of choice was that of a fresco secco (Italian for dry plaster), a type of painting invented by Cennino Cennini in the fifteenth century. It is a form of mural rarely practiced today, as it requires enormous skill and many preparatory steps. Zallinger pulled it off however.
Fig. 2: The Triassic section of The Age of Reptiles. Note the trees in the foreground that separate the scenes. Because of the sheer size of the mural I had to scan a fold-out miniature from a guide-book I own, so I apologize for the low quality.
The end-result was a 4.9 x 34 meter mural showing the evolution of life from the Devonian all the way to the end of the Cretaceous. We begin on the right side with a bunch of lobe-finned fish, Eusthenopteron, crawling their way out of the swamp underneath alien-looking plants. As we progress to the left the world becomes populated by amphibians. Over a fallen tree we pass a across a river into the Permian where we see familiar fin-backed stem-mammals such as Dimetrodon. A large tree in the foreground cuts this scene off from the next one, which is set in the Triassic and shows us the first dinosaurs, such as Plateosaurus, in the familiar tripodal, upright posture. The Triassic scene is again bordered by another tree, which sections off the Jurassic. In the foreground a gigantic Brontosaurus wallows in its river, surrounded by the pterosaur Rhamphorynchus and the proto-bird Archaeopteryx. Behind it a very ungainly-looking Stegosaurus crawls around, while a very pot-bellied Allosaurus feeds off an indeterminate carcass. Another tree caps this period off as we enter the Cretaceous. We see familiar dinosaurs such as Ankylosaurus and Triceratops. Most prominent is of course T. rex, who looks even more pot-bellied and brawny than the allosaur and stands in the classic Godzilla-pose. Under the dinosaurs’ feet the small mammal Cimolestes scuttles around. At the very far left corner we see several volcanoes erupt. This signals off the end of The Age of Reptiles, as at this time volcanism was seen as the most likely explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs, with the ash in the atmosphere creating an ice age that the giant reptiles could not survive.
Fig. 3: Zallinger’s depiction of Jurassic dinosaurs is definitely not revolutionary for his time in any way, however the quality of the art with all its details is impressive (though my bad scan probably does not accurately convey this) and on a higher level than previous work. It definitely does not have to shy away from Renaissance frescoes.
Like Fantasia, The Age of Reptiles likely only added to the Alien Prehistoric World Trope indirectly through misunderstanding and its wide circulation. A casual viewer not familiar with geologic history or the mural’s background might not understand that the piece depicts multiple time periods and that the large trees in the foreground are used to demarcate leaps in time. They might therefore come to think that the mural depicts just a single age, with all the lieforms living together at the same time. The volcanoes at the left corner, used to symbolize a singular event, might therefore also be understood as a casual occurrence of a prehistoric landscape from this time. This likely added to the already existing preconception that volcanism was high throughout prehistory, which we looked at in part 3. The creatures themselves also look quite bizarre. While preparing for the mural, Zallinger did get a crash course in vertebrate paleontology and paleobotany, but it is clear that he did not have the finest grasp of the dinosaurs’ anatomy. In many ways they resemble their lumpy and bloated counterparts from Fantasia, except their implied movement is much slower, in part because fresco secco does not lend itself well for dynamic scenes. We are reminded of the “huge, bizarre and ungainly shapes rising and subsiding in the landscape” that Charles Knight talked about in Part 2.
Fig. 4: Depicting Cretaceous dinosaurs alongside modern-looking flowering plants became a common trend from the 1940s onward. In hindsight Zallinger ironically depicted the flowers too modern, as the purported crown-group angiosperms depicted in the mural later turned out to be a lot more primitive than thought.
There are however some things that Zallinger improves over Disney and Knight when it comes to the alienation of the prehistoric world. Because of the fresco secco method, the texture and coloration of the dinosaurs looks a lot more lifelike and similar to a living animal’s appearance. While the animals are a bit ungainly in shape, they do not look as cartoonish as they did in Knight’s paintings. The coloration of the environment itself is more reminiscent of a modern landscape than anything in Fantasia. The sky and water are blue and the plants are in a pleasant green. The Age of Reptiles also began the trend of showing Cretaceous dinosaurs alongside something very familiar for us: Flowering plants! Most prominently we see a beautiful magnolia tree alongside Triceratops and T. rex. Behind them grows a willow. In previous paleoart, apart from anachronistic grass, it was convention to show dinosaurs alongside tropical  swamp- or rainforest plants, such as ferns, palms, cycads or ginkgos, all of which are vegetation we Western audiences usually associate with foreign, exotic places. What was often forgotten is that for most of the Mesozoic the dominant plant groups were the conifers, which even back then looked familiar to our modern pine trees and sequoias. Many Jurassic dinosaurs likely lived in environments that would not have been too dissimilar form North American redwood forests. What was also known for the better part of the twentieth century is that angiosperms, the flowering plants, existed at least since the Cretaceous (in recent years some evidence has pushed their possible earliest origin as far back as the Triassic or even the Permian). Zallinger was perhaps among the first to accurately reflect this in a major paleoart piece. The composition, coloration and vegetation all create something which was largely absent from previous depictions of the prehistoric world: Beauty. The thing that Knight thought prehistory entirely lacked. The Age of Reptiles is not a deriding depiction of a ruthless antediluvian world anymore, but rather a glorifying story of the conquest of land by the vertebrates, in the same style and with the same skill as any Renaissance painting. When Peter Dodson first saw the mural in person he allegedly almost wept.
Fig. 5: A lonely, sad 1950s Iguanodon standing in a dinosaur graveyard. It should be mentioned  that Augusta and Burian had to live through both World Wars and saw the beginning of the Cold War with its global threat of nuclear annihilation. Someone standing in a field of bones in this context likely adds at least some personal, perhaps even autobiographical connotations.
14 years before Zallinger another artist was born in the Eastern Bloc, more precisely in what is today the Czech Republic. Unlike Rudy he would however remain in this part of the world, as it would soon thereafter become a member of the Soviet Bloc. His name was Zdeněk Michael František Burian. As a teenager he joined the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, however he would not complete his studies and instead improve his artwork autodidactically while working rather laborious jobs. After doing his military service (partially working as the division painter) in the 1920s, he became an illustrator for various adventure books, including those of Jules Vernes, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rudyard Kipling. Some German readers might recognize his art from some of Karl May’s Winnetou novels (to American readers unaware, Winnetou was what we in Central Europe used to think the Wild West was like). In 1935 Burian was discovered by paleontologist Josef Augusta, who asked the painter if he could illustrate extinct lifeforms for him. Paleoart-history was made and the two would work closely together on many popular books about prehistory until Augusta’s death in 1968. Burian would nonetheless continue working with other palaeontologists to produce more art until his death in 1981.
Fig. 6: This 1970 Burian-piece is often called the “Heroic Tarbosaurus”. You can clearly see why. With muscly, eagle-like legs, lifted tail and sharp sight Tarbosaurus bataar proudly dominates the landscape, looking for a new foe to face. Napoleon Crossing the Alps ain't got shit on this. The dinosaur no longer serves as a monstrous villain to the protagonist, rather it is the protagonist. I also just want to say that Burian was great at painting skies. As Clemens J. Setz notes, the literal air in many of his pieces is drawn as if the paintings were nostalgic photographs made with a 1970s-camera (Schalansky 2013, p. 6).
Burian’s work is iconic. If you don’t know the man, you nonetheless probably know his art, as it is widely circulated and its influences can be felt even today. Even Jurassic Park has payed hommage to him in one scene. His naturalistic artstyle has reached a level of feeling real which I think has not been achieved ever since, even with modern digital art. There are some elements that do create an alien atmosphere in his works. A good example is the Iguanodon standing in a field of bones, while the moon shines in the background. It is a very eerie, otherworldly scene. But even this piece is an example of how Burian subverts the Alien Prehistoric World Trope. In the original 1950s book where it is from it is used to illustrate a short story told by Augusta, named The Call of Silence. It is about an old Iguanodon whose herd gets attacked by a Megalosaurus. The attack separates the old animal from its family and it retreats to a dinosaur-graveyard to die alone. In that light the scene becomes very melancholic and humanizing. Burian and Augusta's view of evolution and Earth’s history was not one of a savage survival of the fittest nor a march of progress, as it may have been for people such as Charles Knight, but a melancholic series of individual stories about life and death. In Augusta’s stories and Burian’s accompanying artwork the dinosaurs are no longer villains or obsolete monsters, but the protagonists of their own stories, often being the victims of fate. The dinosaurs become tangible and even relatable creatures, animals that lived and died like you and me, not alien monsters.  There are two more notable things: Burian rarely, if ever, depicts scenes of outright violence. At best he shows predators running towards their prey or standing above an already killed animal, but with no blood or gore visible. He therefore largely defies the trope of the prehistoric world being more violent than the modern one. The second thing is that he applied his extremely good intuition of living animal biology onto his paleoart, which is why, unlike Knight, he managed to give his dinosaurs accurately proportioned muscle mass. Just compare his Tarbosaurus to Knight's Allosaurus from part 2. Burian's creations come off as way more believable, actual animals than in many works before him. This is especially impressive, because since he was a citizen of Soviet Czechoslovakia he never had direct access to the fossils concerned and instead had to heavily rely on photographs of mounted museum-skeletons, other artist's skeletal drawings and advice from the paleontologists he worked with. 
Fig. 7: Among Burian’s last paintings was this Barosaurus lentus from 1976. As Darren Naish suspects, it is most likely based on a similar piece by Robert Bakker. Burian was likely trying to adapt to the commencing Dinosaur Renaissance by portraying sauropods as erect-legged land-dwellers with their tails off the ground. What is often forgotten is that as far back as 1938 Burian depicted at least some dinosaurs as agile and active animals, most notably the bird-like ornithomimids, but also hadrosaurs and T. rex.
With the 1960s coming to a close it seems like dinosaurs and their world were on the way to lose their alienness. They were rather archaic and somewhat strange animals, but animals with their own beauty nonetheless. They were becoming familiar beasts, just like our lizards and tortoises, and the Alien Prehistoric World Trope may have started to die. However, the children who were inspired by Zallinger’s and Burian’s art were now growing up and became palaeontologists themselves. Looking back at the old art, the old books and the old mounted skeletons, one of them realized something that would forever change paleontology: “Something is very wrong with our dinosaurs.”

With that I thank you again very much for reading this part and hope to see you next time when we come to the Dinosaur Renaissance.

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Literary Sources:

  • Brusatte, Steve: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. A New History of a Lost World, New York 2018.
  • Burian, Zdeněk/Spinar, Zdeněk: Life Before Man, Prague 1972 (Revised Edition from 1995).
  • Davidson, Jane: A History of Paleontology Illustration, Bloomington 2008.
  • Schalansky, Judith: Die Verlorenen Welten des Zdeněk Burian, Berlin 2013 (Naturkunden 8).
  • Volpe, Rosemary: The Age of Reptiles. The Art and Science of Rudolph Zallinger’s Great Dinosaur Mural at Yale, New Haven 2007.

Online Sources:

Image Sources:

  • Fig. 1: Volpe 2007, p. 2.
  • Fig. 2-4: Volpe 2007, foldout.
  • Fig. 5: Schalansky 2013, p. 105.
  • Fig. 6: Schalansky 2013, p. 113.
  • Fig. 7: Schalansky 2013, p. 178.


  1. I'm just now reading through you APW series. Great article as always! Funny that you describe Zallinger's T. rex as being in a Godzilla pose. I don't know if you've seen the original 1954 Gojira, but the Age of Reptiles T. rex was actually a big influence on Godzilla's design, and the piece is even featured in the movie.

  2. Burian's Tarbosaurus lives on in Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics.