It’s time. Time to tackle the Big Effing Book. It’s been out for years, it’s got our name written all over it and most of us have seen it by now. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, but there’s no more reason for delay. It’s time.
Preamble ramble: In my review of the palaeoart exhibition at Teylers Museum, I complained that Zoë Lescaze’s book was too expensive and too heavy to buy at that time. My endless complaining paid off for once, because shortly after I published the review I was approached by someone on Facebook who offered me his copy at a discount. I couldn’t resist. So here we are. Thanks, Roel!
What an absolute unit. This is, by some distance, the biggest book I currently own. It’s not so much a coffee table book as it is a full-on coffee table. The mighty Paleoart, published in 2017, written by Zoë Lescaze with input from Walton Ford, is the biggest and most impressive work on the eponymous subject so far. But is it the best?
Let’s start with the obvious: holy moly. This is one amazing-looking book. You get what you’ve paid for. Everything about it looks great. And with so many high-quality reproductions of palaeoart masterpieces both famous and unknown, you can spend hours just flicking through the pages, taking in all the details, discovering all the supremely evocative and creative artwork that lies within.
There’s high-resolution reproductions of classic and lesser-known works from all the greats of vintage palaeoart: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Charles Knight, Heinrich Harder, a handsome centerfold of Rudolph Zallinger’s mural, Neave Parker, Zdeněk Burian and Ely Kish. The gang’s all here. Next to these usual suspects, the book also highlights work of lesser-known artists, such as Joseph Kuwasseg, Alice Woodward, Mathurin Méheut and the mysterious individual known only as F. John. Maurice Wilson, featured alongside Parker, is a particularly neat find; his clear-lined stylized palaeoart is very appealing to me.
My favourite section of this book, Lescaze’s most important contribution to us palaeoart fans, is the chapter on Soviet-era Russian palaeoart. What a treasure trove that is! Many of the works here are reproduced in print for the very first time for Westerners to get acquainted with, and the results are astounding. Will the names Flyorov, Vatagin and Lopatin one day carry as much weight as Hawkins, Knight and Burian? The Russians allowed themselves a little more freedom to experiment with artistic styles, leading to gorgeous, unique and highly creative works never seen before. They make this an essential book rather than just a beautiful one.
It is interesting to contrast this book against that other important volume on palaeoart that came out recently: Mark Witton’s The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, discussed by Marc Vincent here. The books couldn’t be more different. One is about palaeoart’s past, the other about its future. Witton, being a scientist, focuses heavily on the scientific side of things: the current state of palaeontology, how to do research and making holistic and scientifically believable art. None of this is of much concern to Lescaze. This is very much not a book about dinosaurs. Lescaze takes an art critic’s eye to palaeoart; a remarkably rare perspective for what is, after all, an art form.
So instead of reading about palaeontology and other sciences, we’re reading about the lives and times of the artists, as we would in books on other genres and movements in the arts. Lescaze’s characterizations of the colourful individuals involved are vivid and often amusing, though she occasionally gets lost in her own flowery metaphors (“If Cope was lightning, Marsh was thunder”. Okay then). It’s so obvious, yet so rare, to treat palaeoart as art first. Lescaze’s main thesis is that due to whatever snobbery, the world of the Fine Arts has ignored and dismissed palaeoart for too long, and that’s definitely a thesis I can get behind!
It’s been working, too. Esther van Gelder, curator of the palaeoart exhibition at Teylers, has told me that this book was not only a big inspiration for the exhibition, but, crucially, a major help in convincing her colleagues to make it happen in the first place. This book is helping people take palaeoart more seriously as an artistic genre. It’s already changing hearts and minds. And with quality presentation like this, it’s hard to ask for more… but I’m still gonna.
On the one hand, Lescaze’s approach is quite refreshing. It’s a bit of a relief to have someone curate the works of Hawkins, Knight and Burian on their artistic merits with no judgement at all as goes their scientific accuracy. We are simply asked to enjoy their art as art, not as reconstructions of the actual distant past. I don’t know about you, but my inner pedantic voice is always on, saying stuff like “of course, Iguanodon didn’t really look like that!” Lescaze encourages me to turn that voice down for once.
On the other hand, Lescaze seems to think that with the modern emphasis on scientific rigour and accuracy there is less and less room for creativity. In her view, as science finds out more and more about the life appearance of extinct animals, it sets more and more boundaries and limitations on how the animals are allowed to look, while the reconstructed great fossil beast scenes of yore were often fanciful and sometimes downright crazy. She calls modern palaeoart “without much soul” and “clinical”, with Ely Kish (who is not that modern) being an exception for making evocative art.
Elsewhere, she reinforces the notion that science and artistic vision are at odds with each other. Hawkins, for instance, is lauded as the one to “free prehistoric animals from polite society and esoteric texts and unleash them on the public imagination”. Heinrich Harder, for his part, was “reveling in style over scientific substance” and “drafted a declaration of independence for the discipline, freeing it from pedagogy.” Note the constant language of “liberation”. In her view, the artist’s creativity is forever struggling against the boring and restrictive confines of science, and it’s gotten worse.
Needless to say, I passionately disagree with this view. True, since the Dinosaur Renaissance, a certain style of rigourous and conservative reconstruction of the kind pioneered by Robert Bakker and, especially, Greg Paul, has become perhaps too dominant, as thourougly discussed and deconstructed in All Yesterdays. Also, spend any amount of time in any children’s bookstore and you’ll know there is, indeed, plenty of soulless dinosaur art out there (hey look, it’s that same stock CGI T. rex you’ve seen a million times). But palaeoart is a discipline where art and science should, by necessity, work together instead of against each other. Science should not – and indeed, does not – sterilize creativity, nor does being imaginative mean having to take liberties with the evidence. In this post-All Yesterdays world, the palaeoart community is an environment where creativity and originality are very much alive and encouraged. And, in my own experience as an artist, limitations can breed creativity in themselves.
Also: let’s give the Renaissance-era artists some credit here. With respect; Kish wasn’t the only good one. Love them or not, nobody’s gonna call the works of, say, Willam Stout, Luis Rey, Jan Sovák or Douglas Henderson “soulless”.
Neither Bakker nor Paul, both hugely influential, are mentioned in the book, nevermind the All Yesterdays movement. I can understand that covering modern palaeoart (“modern” being from the 1970s onwards, in this case) is beyond the scope of this book, and goodness knows it’s big enough already. However, by dismissing it or not mentioning it at all, the author unwittingly seems to declare her own subject dead. That, I would think, rather defeats the purpose of what she is trying to do. The impression one gets from reading the book’s conclusion is that Lescaze considers palaeoart an art form whose best days are behind it. This leaves the reader with a sense of pessimism about the future of palaeoart, which is completely misplaced; one round on the Internet should reveal that the current generation of palaeoartists is in fact huge, diverse, enormously talented and more creative than ever*.
In conclusion: Yes, this Big Effing Book is basically a must-have if you can afford it (and heaven knows I only barely could – it’s been out for three years and is still as expensive as ever). Any reader of this blog will find many things to enjoy here, any artist will be inspired by the lavishly and lovingly photographed art. Its game plan to emancipate palaeoart from the wastebin of the Fine Arts is admirable, and seems to be effective, which is why all in all this book is a positive thing. But, gigantic as it is, it’s a bit scattershot and it tells only part of the story of palaeoart. So, as the definitive book on palaeoart, Paleoart does leave something to be desired. I would love to see a followup someday.
* I won’t name any because the list is too long and I don’t want to leave people out. Assume I’m talking about you. You’re awesome!