sabato 2 febbraio 2013

A “Palaeoartistic Enlightenment ”: Dinosaurs as (Deconstructed) Scientific Iconography

A fluffy Dilophosaurus wetherilli, by Fabio Manucci (2011; revised in 2013).
More info available here.
«To those who persist in viewing iconography as peripheral or subsidiary to text,
I can only respond with a primal fact of  our evolutionary biology.
Primates are quintessentially visual animals, and have been so endowed since the first
tree-dwellers of earliest Tertiary reconstructions had to move nimbly among the branches,
or fall to their deaths away from further scrutiny by natural selection. 
Humans, as legatees of this heritage, learn by seeing and visualizing».

Stephen J. Gould [1]

… And then there were three

Recently, three major contributions to the field of palaeoart* have been nearly simultaneously published. Here they are (in alphabetic order):
  • Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M. & Naish, D. (2012). All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. With Skeletal Diagrams by Scott Hartman. Irregular Books.
  • Martyniuk, M.P. (2012). A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs. Vernon: PanAves.
  • White, S. (2012). Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart. London: Titan Books.
These books represent the vanguard of a critical rethinking about the basic approach and the tenets of prehistoric reconstruction. Though each one presents a unique and particular view, they all share one important point: they can be considered as the first products of a new understanding of palaeoart. With the partial exception of White’s book (which is a bit more complicated, since it includes different amazing works and many interviews of some of the greatest palaeoartists of these days – from iconic, historical pictures to new, hyper-real or impressionist forms of depiction), Martyniuk’s Field Guide and the multi-authored All Yesterdays could also be interpreted as a reasoned protest against palaeoartistic conventions. The typical and stale method which threatens palaeoart was once stigmatized by renowned palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould as follows: «The social construction of fossil iconography lies best exposed in the conventions that create such an enormous departure between scenes as sketched and any conceivable counterpart in nature» [2]. In the current debate, dinosaurs are the main subjects of the old conventions’ deconstruction.
Without claiming to be complete, the brief historical background that follows is provided to better understand the impact of these three interesting books.

The heresy of Deinonychus

According to the orthodoxy of old, dinosaurs were depicted as «dimwitted hulks that managed to dominate by size alone until they were superseded by new, smarter, faster, warm-blooded mammals» [3]. During the Victorian era, the freshly coined term “dinosaur”, associated with the derogatory “tyrant”, was employed (among other conventions) «to push into prehuman past (and thus validate) Victorian optimism regarding the inevitable demise of despotic, immoral and inefficient forms of government, reaffirming the moral hierarchy which underpinned exhibitions such as the Crystal Palace» [4]. Their very name slowly became the paradigm of dominance by byzantine inertia, and «a language of empire and autocratic rule» was often used «to describe its relationship to the rest of the natural world» [5].
With slight modifications of this paradigm and with a few, notable exceptions (to cut a long story short), this conception lasted until the late Sixties of the twentieth century, when new discoveries and a new unorthodox stance held principally by Yale professor John Ostrom (and made popular by his former student Robert T. Bakker, palaeontologist and artist), slowly eroded the consensus built around the equation “dinosaurs = obsolescence”. Bakker challenged this claim through his entire academic career and his brilliant and fresh art. His iconic Deinonychus anthirropus, Ostrom 1969 (a new theropod dinosaur whose description was instrumental in the change of mind about dinosaurs’ physiology and ecology) ignited the debate and implicitly set a new artistic standard: agile, lean, elegant, warm-blooded and ever running animals versus the cold-blooded, ferociously stupid, swamp-bound behemoths doomed to extinction. Bakker became a fountain of scientific ideas and innovative (even provocative) artistic designs: galloping ceratopsids and athletic sauropods in the wake of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” were already present since 1968 or followed shortly thereafter, but Deinonychus retained its original status symbol.
In a popular account dated 1978 and published in «National Geographic», Ostrom wrote that «agility and speed are not what we usually visualize in cold-blooded reptiles. The image [of D. anthirropus] is more that of the large flightless birds like the ostrich, or of predatory runners like the secretary birds of Africa or the roadrunner of the American West» [6]. Ostrom stated that the predatory approach shown by Deinonychus fossils and other pieces of evidence, suggested that «at least some of the predatory dinosaurs might have been warm-blooded and have had high metabolic rates» [7], like modern mammals or predatory birds (which are the among the direct descendants of theropod dinosaurs). As Adrian J. Desmond put it, it was a time of vibrant rethinking about dinosaur physiology, which ultimately led to the abandon of “cold-blooded” reptiles as a suitable pattern for dinosaur physiology: «switching models focused attention onto previously unexplored aspects of the dinosaur, aspects that would never have suggested themselves in the old order» [8].

When the Dinomania ruled the world

The year 1993 saw the release of the blockbuster science fiction film Jurassic Park, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a best-selling novel written by Michael Crichton. After the film was released, Gould asserted that «the slow, lumbering, stupid, robotic, virtually behaviorless behemoths of my childhood have been replaced by lithe, agile, potentially warm-blooded, adequately smart, and behaviorally complex creatures» [9], capable of maternal care and cooperative herds, swept away by the consequences of the unpredictable impact of an asteroid. Of all the panoply of dinosaurs, only the lineages that led to modern birds survived, as the final scene of Spielberg’s film romantically suggested.
Quite paradoxically, Jurassic Park paved the way towards the media diffusion of highly energetic, vicious and even malicious killing machines. As this heterogeneous fashion spread into commercial and publishing affairs, the «conventions of unnatural crowding and pervasive predation» [10], which granted once the success of late-nineteenth century carnivorous dinosaurs locked in perennial combat, was thus resurrected.
Nevertheless, the dinomania that roamed the mid 90’s under the banner of Jurassic Park was also the byproduct of the scientific research led by many palaeontologists. Particularly influential among them were Bakker and John Horner, whose works were acknowledged in the final section of Crichton’s novel (Horner eventually became the scientific consultant for Spielberg’s film and skilled artist Gregory S. Paul provided the palaeoartistic preliminary studies).
More or less independently from the initial purpose of the artistic founding fathers, intimate, normal behaviour was somehow lost in favour of the revival of a tennysonian «nature red in tooth and claw». Feathery or fluffy integuments (suggested since the 70’s by Bakker and popularized by his and Paul’s drawings in the 80’s), theropods playing in the snow like modern crows (as speculated by Bakker and depicted by Luis Rey), stegosaurs and prosauropods immortalized in bodily needs, infested by ticks or producing what millions of years later would have been known as coprolites (illustrated by William Stout in the early 80’s) were an uncommon, quite solitary but welcomed exception. Sadly, these were all paths not trodden and ignored by the majority of artists.

Liaoning and a new, cheap conformity

After a period of bizarre artistic hybrids sponsored by the publishing market (e.g., non-feathered active dinosaurs who retained the old Victorian morphology of massively built reptilian leviathans), the mid 90’s discovery of feathered theropod dinosaurs in China (Liaoning) helped to establish a new model: the «hyperkinetic dinosaurs of Bob Bakker and Gregory S. Paul» [11] finally won the case.
At the dawn of the new millennium, more rapidly than ever before (thanks to a new generation of Internet-confident users), the artistic koiné spread everywhere and turned into the acceptance of what Darren Naish labeled as the «Paul Era» [12], characterized by the adoption of original Gregory S. Paul’s «sleek style», i.e. a skinny, quite muscular rendition of the extinct dinosaurs. Sadly, this fashion led to the rapid increase of unoriginal clones who limited their works to the creation of «“zombie dinosaurs” – emaciated [dinosaurs] with virtually every bone on show through a paper-thin draping of skin. There is also a certain conformity, or conservatism, in palaeoart, with animals retaining certain looks and stereotyped behaviours in every work that they feature in» [13]. The “Dinosaur Renaissance” hardly promoted since the late Sixties was slowly turning into another kind of cliché (which, for the most part, misinterpreted the original intent), and a new, cheap conformity was born.
In the case of dinosaurs and other extinct animals, «the substrate for fascination has always been present, even in the bad old days of dumb and lumbering dinosaurs (who were still big, fierce, and extinct)» [14]; indeed, this fascination is perpetually nourished by commercial enterprises who, generally speaking, have not a keen interest in the scientific accuracy of what they produce (to say the least). With the exception of a few interesting, scientifically accurate and thought-provoking productions, the advent of CGI à bon marché marked the diffusion of TV shows and children books adorned with hyper-active, reptilian-looking, ever-battling, ever-roaring and poorly feathered dinosaurs (for slow is the acceptance of the “birds are dinosaurs” paradigm…), wrapped up in standardized renditions [15].

… And now what?

This short and introductory account is obviously imprecise and generalized. Artistic forerunners who pledged for the cause of a more realistic view of prehistoric ecology can easily be spotted even in the recent past (Bill Berry and Jay Matternes, for instance). At the same time, works judged scientifically outdated (e.g., those signed in the first half of the past century by masters like Zdenek Burian or Charles Knight) keep intact their unreachable artistic skill and value.
These few lines only explored the surface of an immense cultural theme. For instance, the entanglement of science and art in the history of palaeontology is another fascinating, and rather complicated, topic. As Jane Davidson recently wrote, «the science of paleontology has always been inextricably tied to art» [16]. Even in the better days of the bakkerian “Dinosaur Renaissance”, competing theories about dinosaur physiology (which some proved to be wrong a bit later) were fiercely proposed and harshly discussed – and competing artistic illustrations were designed in order to give these hypothesis a visual support.
The main point is that today, in the communities of both scholars and professional palaeoartists, a growing feeling of dissatisfaction about the contemporary palaeoartistic clichés is slowly gaining ground. At the present time, the need for a more accurate and sensitive artistic approach, in accordance to physiological, ecological and palaeontological research, is becoming widely spread. This is not a futile endeavour. As Gould pointed out, «iconography [is not] peripheral or subsidiary to text» [17] but, since our primate legacy, iconography (the result of controlled speculation and imagination) is the royal way to learning, communicate and convey scientific research.


Groundbreaking palaeoart books published in 2012. From left to right: All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric AnimalsA Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs; Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart.
All copyrights are the property of their respective owners. Disclaimer: Because the images are book covers, a form of product packaging, each entire image is needed to identify the product, properly convey the meaning and branding intended, and avoid tarnishing or misrepresenting the image. As book covers, the images are not replaceable by free content; any other image that shows the packaging of the book would also be copyrighted, and any version that is not true to the original would be inadequate for identification or commentary.
In order to understand the current flourishing “Palaeoartistic Enlightenment” (since “Dinosaur Renaissance” is preoccupied by the bakkerian revolution of the late Sixties), it is perhaps better to observe the recreation of ancient landscapes, frozen in the deep times of the Earth, from the point of view of the authors themselves. White, Naish & Matyniuk kindly accepted to respond to five questions each, concerning the contemporary palaeoartistic panorama and various other interesting topics. In the next posts you will find all the three interviews, so stay tuned!

* = Naish correctly notes that some scholars consider that the term “palaeoart” «should best be applied to art produced in prehistoric times» [18]. However, since the proposal for a new name referring to contemporary artwork (e.g., “palaeontography”) «has yet to catch on», I follow Naish’s classic choice of terminology.


[1] Gould, S.J. (2001). Reconstructing (and Deconstructing) the Past, in id. (ed.), The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 6-21; 11 (1993 1st ed.).
[2] Gould, Reconstructing (and Deconstructing) the Past, 7.
[3] Parsons, K.M. (2001). Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars, Bloomington-Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 22.
[4] O’Connor, R. (2012). Victorian Saurians: The Linguistic Prehistory of the Modern Dinosaur. «Journal of Victorian Culture», 17, 4: 492-504; 501.
[5] Semonin, P. (1997). Empire and Extinction: The Dinosaur as a Metaphor for Dominance in Prehistoric Nature. «Leonardo», 30, 3: 171-182; 181.
[6] Ostrom, J. (1978). Startling New Look at Dinosaurs. «National Geographic», 154, 2, August: 152-185; 161.
[7] Ostrom, Startling New Look, 164.
[8] Desmond, A.J. (1977). The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs: A Revolution in Paleontology. Futura Publications: London; 71 (1975 1st ed.).
[9] Gould, S.J. (1993). Dinomania. Jurassic Park, directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Michael Crichton, by David Koepp . Universal city studios; The Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay, by Jody Duncan, Ballantine, 195 pp., $18.00 (paper); Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton, Ballantine, 399 pp., $6.99 (paper). «New York Review of Books», August 12, 1993:
[10] Gould, Reconstructing (and Deconstructing) the Past, 7.
[11] Martyniuk, M.P. (2012). All Yesterdays: Paleoart Enters A New Era. «Dinogoss», December 10, 2012: <>.
[12] Vincent, M. (2012). All Yesterdays: the live conference room spectacular. «Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs», December 8, 2012: <>.
[13] Vincent, All Yesterdays.
[14] Gould, Dinomania.
[15] Cf. White, S. (2012). Dinosaur Renaissance: A Brief Prehistory of Paleoart, in id. (ed.). Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart. London: Titan Books, 8-11; 10.
[16] Davidson, J. (2008). A History of Paleontology Illustration. Bloomington-Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Quoted in Switek, B. (2009). Book Review: A History of Paleontology Illustration, in «Palaeontologia Electronica», 12 (1), pp. R3: <>.
As Switek points out, «An in-depth analysis of how paleo-art (and paleontology in general) changed in the wake of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” is left wanting».
[17] Gould, Reconstructing (and Deconstructing) the Past, 7.
[18] Naish, D. (2012). Introduction, in Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M. & Naish, D., All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. With Skeletal Diagrams by Scott Hartman. Irregular Books 2012, 8-16; 14 (note no 1). 

Refs. indicized by Research Blogging:
O'Connor, R. (2012). Victorian Saurians: The Linguistic Prehistory of the Modern Dinosaur Journal of Victorian Culture, 17 (4), 492-504 DOI: 10.1080/13555502.2012.738896
Semonin, P. (1997). Empire and Extinction: The Dinosaur as a Metaphor for Dominance in Prehistoric Nature Leonardo, 30 (3) DOI: 10.2307/1576441

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