Guest Post: Paleoart History in Munich

Guest Post Museums Vintage Dinosaur Art

Today’s guest post is brought to you by Ilja Nieuwland. Inspired by our coverage of the palaeoart exhibition in Haarlem, he wrote in to share his views on a different palaeoart exhibition in Munich. Yes, it turns out there are no less than three palaeoart exhibitions running in Europe this year! Ilja is a cultural historian of science, focusing on the history of palaeontology and geology. In 2019, he published American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus, which can be found here. He is currently writing a biography of the German paleontologist and polyglot Otto Jaekel. Check out his blog Hydrarchos and his Twitter account. Thanks for your insight, Ilja! – Niels

Zdeněk Buran’s work on display in Munich

This year, we on the European mainland will see no less than three exhibitions dedicated to paleoart, the imagination of extinct animals and worlds through art: in Munich, Haarlem and Gotha (opening on May 17th). This takes place against a background of paradigmatic shifts going on in our ideas about how to reconstruct the life of the past, coupled to All Yesterdays, a book published in 2012 by Darren Naish, John Conway and C.M. Kosemen(1). However, the background of this movement is much more diverse than this and I may write about it in the future, so let’s concentrate on the exhibitions for now.

I heard about the presentation Paleoart: Vom Jugendstil bis in die Moderne (pdf folder) at Munich’s Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie quite by chance. The museum appears not to have gone out of its way to advertise the event, since no one I spoke to had heard of it (of course, that could also mean we need to make a bit more of an effort).


The Staatssammlung is a museum probably best known for what it hasn’t got. During a bombing raid on its old premises in 1944, all the treasures brought from Egypt by Ernst Stromer in 1901 were destroyed. These included the type specimen of Spinosaurus aegypticus, one of the biggest theropod dinosaurs we know(2). Tragically, those remains were primarily lost because they were to big to scurry away to safety; museum workers had secretly taken smaller specimens home for safe-keeping, but the museum’s fiercely national socialist director forbade the removal of exhibits because in his eyes it reeked of defeatism.

After the war, the collection moved to its present premises (Richard-Wagner-Straße 10, Munich). The building isn’t entirely ideal as a museum (it’s an old school) but the combination of offices, lecture halls and exhibition spaces does give this “half-museum” a very nice and informal atmosphere. Visitors are allowed to wander freely and can interact with students and scholars if given the chance.

At the moment, the ground floor, which houses the largest exhibits, is being renovated, so the exhibit is restricted to the second and third floor. The Paleoart exhibition is on diplay on the latter, and can be viewed until the end of March.

The exhibition floor

Although atmospheric, the exhibit space is also a bit limited in size. What we have is a small and really rather exquisite display of paintings, models, and books. The focus is historical and biographical, most of all, and dedicated to four paleo-artists: chronologically they are Friedrich König, Othenio Abel, Franz Roubal, and Zdeněk Burian. By far the biggest emphasis is on Roubal and König. This is very welcome since they are also by far the most obscure of the four.

Edit: It occurred to me that I forgot an important point in favor of this exhibition – that it is unusually adult. There is no attempt to turn it into a “family event” (in my view the only thing to detract from the Teylers exhibition). This is hardly surprising as it was organised to coincide with the 2019 ESHS meeting at the Munich museum, but it is rare to see anyhow and for me as a paleo-geek, made it a far more enjoyable experience.

Friedrich König’s models

I already wrote about Friedrich König (1877-1934) earlier, despite not being able to find much in the way of biographical information. Here, he is fleshed out more, and the collection of his models on display is quite impressive. Of course, König worked out of Munich himself, so one would expect the local museum to have a good representation of his work – the more so since his catalogue (1911) prints an explicit recommendation from Ferdinand Broili, then director of the institute(3). The models hardly show their age of more than a century, and look far more life-like and dynamic than the catalogue represents. The difference is actually quite startling, and suggests that König’s apparent lack of commercial success(4) might have been caused at least partially by questionable photography and print work.

König’s model of (upright) Diplodocus (top) and the image from his catalogue (bottom).

The models on display here are exquisite, and for the most part unlike anything else. Especially his Stegosaurus is very individual. Seeing them “in the flesh” also explains why he came recommended by such luminaries as Othenio Abel, Eberhard Fraas, and the aforementioned Broili. The exception is König’s model of Triceratops prorsus, which appears to be an almost literal copy of Charles Knight’s famous 1901 model.

Even to the exhibition makers (a team led by Mike Reich) the figure of König appeared to have remained quite obscure, and his somewhat generic name and very fragmentary publication record do not help. Basically, what we see here is all that we know. After what appears to have been a brief stint in paleoart, he seems to have concentrated on advertising work (for which he attached his mother’s surname, Lorinser, in front of his own).

Charles Knight (top, 1901) and Friedrich König (bottom, 1911), Triceratops prorsus.


The second figure receiving attention is the very well-known Austrian Othenio Abel (1875-1946). Abel studied both law and geology at the University of Vienna, and worked at the Geological Survey before becoming a professor at the University of Vienna. Despite his unquestionable scientifc merits, Abel’s reputation has been heavily tainted by his political viewpoints, particularly his virulent anti-semitism and – in later years – enthusiastic support for national socialism. As the rector of Vienna University, he was forced out of office due to his leniency toward sectarian political violence. But his lasting achievement was as the principal founder of a new discipline, paleobiology, together with the Hungarian Ferenc Nopcsa, the Belgian Louis Dollo and the German Otto Jaekel. Rather than studying each fossil animal merely as an entity onto itself, Abel and his fellow paleobiologists sought to study it using contemporary biological methods in order to give it a place in the evolutionary history of life(5).

In the process, Abel not only created his own artwork, but also dedicated various texts to the history and art of reconstruction, most importantly an extensive manual from 1925(6). In this work, he gives examples of proper and improper reconstructions, and demonstrates his own skill as a draftsman. Abel was responsible for various important artworks, such as the first reconstruction of the African sauropod Brachiosaurus brancai (1918).

Abel’s Brachiosaurus reconstruction from 1918.

Interestingly, there appear to be a few cross-contaminations between König’s and Abel’s work. This is most obvious when we compare König’s Stegosaurus (1911) to Abel’s reconstruction of 1918 (see below). In both reconstructions the animal looks atypically slender for the time, with an arching vertebral column and outward elbows. Both men knew each other well, of course, and König’s reconstruction is likely the result of Abel’s influence, showing an approach which Abel also iterated in his monograph on Diplodocus from 1910(7). The big difference here is the way in which Abel imaged alternating plates on Stegosaurus’s back, compared to König’s narrow line of parallel ones.

Stegosaurus by Friedrich König (1911, left) and Othenio Abel (1918, right).


We haven’t even arrived at the artist whose work is most prominently displayed here, Franz Roubal (1889-1967), an Austrian artist who started out collaborating with Abel but whose career went on for much longer. Although he made a good living portraying living and extinct animals, his fame appears to have been limited mainly to central Europe, even if some of his art can be found elsewhere as well.

Roubal was a professional artist, who took inspiration from animal painters such as Wilhelm Kuhnert and, it seems, particularly Richard Friese. In 1921, he made the acquaintance of Abel, which led to a series of reconstructions, both on canvas and in sculpture. As a consequence, he was approached by other paleontologists in the German-speaking world as well. Working mainly for museums, he continued depicting both extinct and extant life throughout his life.

Stenopterygius quadrissicus by Franz Roubal, 1936. Clay model on wood, partially painted. Göttingen GZG.A 1902.

Various fossil mammals portrayed by Franz Roubal.


The most famous of the artists in this exhibit is without doubt the Czech Zdeněk Burian. Anyone from my generation who was interested in extinct life will intimately know Burian’s work, and my copy of Leven in de Oertijd (the Dutch translation of Burian and Kosler’s Life from the Past) has been a treasured possession ever since I bought it (or rather, had my dad buy it for me) as a nine-year-old. Arguably the most talented of all the artists on show here, Burian’s fame also makes him a bit of an outlier in the exhibit. The objects on display mainly consist of books and one original painting of Deinotherium. This is augmented with a digital slideshow of mainly Roubal’s paintings.

However, any viewer must be struck immediately by Burian’s indebtedness to Roubal. This is particularly striking in the portrayal of fossil mammals: the use of color, the pose of various animals, scenery and plantlife: they are all very familiar. Burian’s greater commercial success may stem from the fact that Burian’s pictures are generally more dynamic than Roubal’s ones. That is not necessarily a criticism; because of the more casual poses of his animals, they generally come across as more modern than Burian’s beasts. Where Roubal truly shines in, my view, is as a sculptor, particularly of fossil mammals. There is no “monsterization” sensu Witton, but his statuettes bear more expression than all the roaring T. rexes on children’s book covers put together.

Mosasaurs by Roubal (top, 1937) and Burian (bottom, 1960).

Another interesting comparison (although not one made in the exhibition itself) is between Roubal and other, non-scientific painters of nature. If we set Roubal’s Megaloceros side by side with Eugen Bracht’s famous Gewaltige der Urzeit (1897) we see similarities in the framing and the pose of the animal, but it has been stripped of Bracht’s heavy use of metaphor and rendered much more prosaic. It may not work as well as an artistic statement, but it results in a superior reconstruction, which is what really matters for a scientific artist.

Megaloceros giganteus by Eugen Bracht (1897 (fragment), left) and Franz Roubal (1961, right).

A few niggles

Taken together this is a fine exhibition of sometimes very obscure material, but not without – for me – a few shortcomings, First of all, we are given little information about procedure: through what process did these artists arrive at these results? There are some clues about who inspired whom, but whether that inspiration meant these artists copied earlier results, or made adaptations through some more autonomous process of reconstruction, remains unclear. And given that certainly König’s models are quite individual, it raises curiosity about the genesis of his work. To be fair, the exhibition title (“from Jugendstil to Modern Times”) emphasizes the historical dimension, but it would have been good to know how different results were the outcome of different technical as well as artistic approaches.

My second niggle is a definite lack of contextualization, and I mean that in two ways. Other artists that worked contemporaneously with König and Roubal aren’t even mentioned. This goes for famous German paleoartists such as Heinrich Harder and Josef Pallenberg, but also for people from elsewhere, such as the Frenchman Mathurin Meheut or the Dane Gerhard Heilmann(8). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t necessarily wish to see the same images over and over, and I do really appreciate the works on display here; but a simple mention and perhaps some comparison would have positioned these artists better in their professional surroundings. After a while you understand that this is an exhibit of a very particular group of paleoartists, but that might have been made more explicit.

A bit of context would also have been welcome to get some idea of the early to mid-twentieth-century market for paintings and models in Germany. König was fundamentally an entrepreneur trying to sell his models to museums, but he was hardly the only one and, it seems, not very successful at doing so. I have come across models by the Silesian Etruria company with some regularity, and I know of more companies occupying this space.

Etruria models (from Abel, Othenio. Geschichte Und Methode Der Rekonstruktion Vorzeitlicher Wirbeltiere. Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1925, p. 12)


But despite these issues, this approach to exhibition also has advantages that I already hinted at. First of all, concentrating on a fairly limited circle of central European artists (one might call them the “Habsburg circle”) presents us with a fairly clean artistic genealogy, from König, via Abel, to Roubal and finally Burian. Interestingly, each artist appears to have been more successful than their predecessor: König gave up paleoart pretty quickly, for Abel it was not central in his work, Roubal crafted a decades-long career out of it, and finally Burian gained an international reputation with great recognition, both commercial and scientific.

A final word should be dedicated to the design of the exhibit, which is very tasteful and, I would argue, plays to the strengths of a space which initially seems phenomenally unsuited for an exhibit of this kind. Texts are well-written and to the point, and don’t gloss over painful issues such as Abel’s ravid anti-semitism (and nazi sympathies).

The ability to look at this circle of professional paleoartists is the strongest point of exhibit. And the fact that we see such rare material brought to attention again after (in König’s case) well over a century of neglect is advertisement in itself.


  1. Conway, John, C. M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish. All Yesterdays. Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Brighton: Irregular Books, 2014.
  2. see Nothdurft, William, and Josh Smith. The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt. New York: Random House, 2002.
  3. König, Friedrich. Fossil-Reconstruktionen. Bemerkungen Zu Einer Reihe Plastischer Habitusbilder Fossiler Wirbeltiere. München: E. Dultz & Co., 1911. Click here for a PDF file of the catalogue.
  4. This is admittedly anecdotal speculation; I just haven’t encountered his models much.
  5. See  Rieppel, Olivier. Othenio Abel (1875-1946): The Rise and Decline of Paleobiology in German Paleontology. Historical Biology 25, no. 3 (2013): 313–25; for the political dimension of Abel’s life, see Taschwer, Klaus. Geheimsache Bärenhöhle. Wie eine antisemitische Professorenclique nach 1918 an der Universität Wien Jüdische Forscherinnen und Forscher vertrieb. In Alma Mater Antisemitica. Akademisches Milieu, Juden und Antisemitismus an den Universitäten Europas zwischen 1918 und 1939, 221–42. Beiträge Zur Holocaustforschung des Wiener Wiesenthal-Instituts für Holocaust-Studien. Wien: New Academic Press, 2016.
  6. Abel, Othenio. Geschichte und Methode der Rekonstruktion vorzeitlicher Wirbeltiere. Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1925.
  7. Abel, Othenio. Die Rekonstruktion des Diplodocus. Abhandlungen der K.K. Zoologisch-Botanischen Gesellschaft in Wien 5 (1910): 1–59.
  8. Lescaze, Zoë. Paleoart. Visions of the Prehistoric Past. Köln: Taschen, i2017. For Meheut, see Le Loeuff, Jean. Art and Palaeontology in German-Occupied France: Les Diplodocus by Mathurin Meheut (1943). Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343 (2010): 325–33; for Heilmann, see Ries, Christopher. Creating the Proavis: Bird Origins in the Art and Science of Gerhard Heilmann 1913–1926. Archives of Natural History 34 (2007): 1–19.

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  • Reply
    Thomas Diehl
    February 9, 2020 at 5:29 am

    This sounds like a really lovely exhibition with seldom seen pieces. A nice recommendation!

    As a German, the caption below the Etruria models is absolutely delightful to me, reading like a 1920’s version of the Dinosaur Toy Blog’s harsher cousin.
    For anybody else, here’s a translation of the fun part: “Reconstructions of two pterosaurs (left: Rhamphorhynchus cf. fig. 8, right: Pteranodon),completely out of scale and of amateurish understanding.”

    • Reply
      Ilja Nieuwland
      February 9, 2020 at 6:40 am

      Yeah, the rest of Abel’s book is also very read-worthy – and similarly unforgiving. If anyone is interested, I’ve made a scan of the book (now in the public domain) which you may download here (30MB PDF file).

  • Reply
    Tom Hübner
    February 10, 2020 at 3:33 am

    Hi Ilja and everyone, I just want to correct that the third mentioned paleoart exhibition this year will be in Gotha (Thuringia) and not in Coburg!!! The provided link is correct though. Thanks for the insight into the exhibition in Munich! As there was almost only rumours but no marketing, it is great to know more about it.

    • Reply
      Ilja Nieuwland
      February 10, 2020 at 9:19 am

      Sheesh, I always get those confused, probably because of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha thing.

  • Reply
    Keir Heath
    February 25, 2020 at 8:49 am

    Great post- very useful and particularly informative. The comments too! To think… the site where the only example of a Spinosaurus was destroyed; had no idea that it was due to the typically idiotic Nazi ideology!

  • Reply
    Tuefer Benz
    March 15, 2020 at 10:49 am

    Marolin dinosaur toys seem to be based on the Etruria models (I assume they’re all Etruria since the models have the same font).

    Etruria Brontosaurus

    Etruria Iguanodon (both from Teylers museum Dinomakers exhibit)

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