Здравствуйте, comrades! Today, we are going to sneak past the Iron Curtain to see what the palaeoartists in the USSR were getting up to! Let’s get the obligatory joke out of the way first: in Mother Russia, dinosaur art review YOU!
Ever since Zoë Lescaze’s monolithic book Paleoart came out, reviewed by me here, we’ve been wisening up to the fact that some of the most interesting Vintage Dinosaur Art was being produced under the Soviet regime. And no Soviet palaeoartist is more interesting than Konstantin Konstantinovic Flyorov (Константин Флёров (1904-1980), sometimes anglicized as Flerov). He was a zoologist and artist working in Moscow in the mid-20th century.
My eternal gratitude and appreciation goes to Benjamin, who tweets at @paleo_pop. He is the one who built up his own library of Flyorov’s work over the years, and was gracious enough to share his with me! Part of this gallery is his, part of it is scans from Lescaze and part of it is stuff I found Googling.
When reading Lescaze, one gets the feeling Flyorov wasn’t a nice chap to be around. She paints a picture of him as a malicious bully who would terrorize everyone around him, large, domineering and narcissistic. In short, the kind of man I for one would have quickly lost patience with. One wonders how many talented people in 20th century Moscow were discouraged from pursuing a career in natural history just because Flyorov was around. But Flyorov is dead, I am alive, and we’ve still got the pictures, so it’s all good.
Let’s kick things off with Flyorov at his most basic and direct. Although Flyorov is known for his bold application of colour theory, he did occasionally work in black and white. I have little context for this Styracosaurus, but I assume it was was produced for a popular book, of which he illustrated many in his life (including the state-approved Children’s Encyclopedia). It’s interesting how much character this Styracosaurus has, and especially how much this one does not look like Burian, who had the monopoly on what Styracosaurus looked like for a while. This one is much closer to Charles Knight’s obscure (but fairly accurate, by Knight standards) 1939 Styracosaurus. Flyorov has given it a much more agressive and exaggerated personality. The Vinni Pukh to Knight’s Winnie the Pooh.
Here’s some of those bold, contrasting colours I mentioned – the bright yellow and orange animal contrasting against the stark blue sky. Flyorov was a master of many styles, both realistic and heavily stylized in ways that even the most out-there Western palaeoart rarely got. As for the dramatic, arched Stegosaurus, it seems to be inspired not so much by Knight as it is by, of all people, Othenio Abel. Flyorov, just like his contemporary Burian, had basically no access to North American fossils because of what side of the Iron Curtain he was on, so he was often dependent on whatever reference material was available to him.
A completely different Stegosaurus can be found in this Jurassic scene, a much more naturalistic and realistic piece. It crawls close to the ground with a very reptilian gait. It has an almost perfectly symmetrical bell curve shape and a very flat, elongated head. It’s closer to Heinrich Harder than to Abel. But of course, our attention is drawn by this extraordinarily bulky, meaty, hulking sauropod. Especially interesting is the skin flap that runs down its entire neck, back and tail. There’s no swamp or sex lake to be seen; the muscular titan has no trouble carrying its own weight. This painting was produced for Moscow’s State Darwin Museum. I don’t know what year it dates from, but I imagine it’s one of Flyorov’s earlier pieces. The animals, including a small theropod, some curiously thin pterosaurs and a shady Archaeopteryx, are drab and grey in the Western palaeoart tradition; this was by no means typical for Flyorov.
Compared to American ones, Mongolian fossils were much more accessible to the Russians, and Flyorov joined a Russian expedition into the Gobi desert at least once. Mongolian dinosaurs are prominent in Flyorov’s work, and none are more prominent than Saurolophus, Flyorov’s favourite dinosaur judging from the sheer number of times he painted them. This moody, silhouetted piece from 1953 is one of many. It has a sense of drama and narrative to it that I always love to see in dinosaur art.
Knight’s duckbills often had an easy-going, comical vibe to them. Flyorov’s take on big hadrosaurs, while in anatomy reminiscent of early Knight, creates a much stranger effect. The foliage gives Saurolophus a sense of imposing scale. Its facial features are exaggarated beyond a comical duckbill into freaky territory, its dark, hunchbacked posture contrasts sharply against the grey backdrop. Nobody can make Saurolophus loom ominously quite like Flyorov.
Here’s a well known later Flyorov piece, depicting Tarbosaurus (freshly described by Maleev earlier that year) and unnamed ankylosaurs from Cretaceous Mongolia. The colour scheme is once again magnificent – I’ve said it before, oranges and blues are a winning combination. And what a strange, unusual tyrannosaur! I can’t think of any tyrannosaur in vintage palaeoart that looks anything like this. Here, we see a highly bulky, meaty, hump-headed animal in a tripodal, upright stance whose flesh distribution betrays Flyorov’s great familiarity with mammals, rather than reptiles. There’s a lot of visible heft and weight to this guy. That makes it somewhat believable as a real creature, despite the obvious stylization, but it’s still quite a fanciful tyrannosaur for 1955. Although a scientist himself, Flyorov thought scientific accuracy in palaeoart was for losers (and he was too vain to ask other palaeontologists for feedback anyway). Many of his Russian contemporaries, who were slightly more committed to scientific literalism, were targets of his scorn at best and of attempts at career sabotage at worst.
There were only three other palaeoartists whom Flyorov truly respected: Knight, Burian, and his own mentor, Vasily Vatagin. Here’s another Cretaceous scene, again for the Darwin Museum, this one from 1939, heavily inspired by both Knight and Vatagin (I crudely hacked together this image from a number of separate scans from the humongous Lescaze book). A sharp departure from the Tarbosaurus above, this is an extremely repitilian-looking, three-fingered Tyrannosaurus, carried over directly from Vatagin (though Vatagin’s piece is much more bloody and macabre). The Triceratops has a pleasingly round shape to it, befitting a herbivore, and the ornithomimids have a good sense of motion to them. The bird by the lake is a nice touch. Pieces like this make Flyorov seem like a typical, realist palaeoartist whose work would slot seemlessly into the Western tradition, but then there is stuff like…
…this. It is another take on Hell Creek, also featuring Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, painted around the same time but radically different. There is so much to unpack here. First of all: this is bloody amazing. If you talk about Flyorov in terms of what other artists he is indebted to, one must mention not only Vatagin and Knight but also names like Van Gogh, Monet and even Derain (doubtlessly, along with a slew of Russian artists my Eurocentric upbringing didn’t teach me about). Heavily stylized, impressionistic pieces like this were more common in Soviet palaeoart (check out the much later Lopatin, Miturich-Khlebnikov and Duvidov) but are almost unknown in the West. Charles Knight’s work was not devoid of impressionistic influences, but he never ran as far with that ball as the Russians did. It’s especially notable that most popular art in Eastern Bloc countries skewed heavily towards realism, and palaeoart, according to Lescaze, offered a way to conduct stylistic experiments without offending the sensibilities of the regime.
Now, I can always appreciate a scene in which Rexy gets its tail handed to it by Triceratops, and it has not escaped notice that in this piece of Russian art it’s not a single individual that gets the job done, as is so often the case in Anglo palaeoart. Rather, it is the proletariat collective that rises up to dispose of their tyrant together. Revolution!
Can’t have enough T. rex, right? Here’s a sketchy one I found. Giving tyrannosaurs a prominent neck hump is apparently something Flyorov often did.
This is one of Flyorov’s later works, from the early sixties, and is his contribution to the ever popular marine-reptiles-above-stormy-waves genre. For a change of pace, the depicted sea monster is not a mosasaur but a pliosaur, chasing ichthyosaurs. The chalk cliff backdrop looks distinctly British, and in fact takes me back to a day of hiking along Beachy Head with Marc Vincent. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure those cliffs are Cretaceous and these animals are Jurassic, but who am I to nitpick? It’s interesting how, in the 1960s, Flyorov still interpreted the ichthyosaurs’ sclerotic rings as visible from the outside, just like Benjamin Hawkins did over a century earlier.
As a researcher, Flyorov specialized mostly in Cenozoic ungulate mammals, so it’s no wonder that these were often the subject of his work. In particular, we cannot talk about Flyorov without mentioning the one animal he loved painting most, even moreso than Saurolophus: Paraceratherium. The man couldn’t get enough of the giant hornless rhino, which he would have known as Baluchitherium. Variations abound, from dark silhouettes to realism to more fantastical broad-stroked Technicolor fare like this. Flyorov would paint prehistoric mammals on any spare bit of cardboard he could find and experiment wildly with styles.
This might be Flyorov’s single most well-known painting, an absolute masterpiece. Majestic. Awe-inspiring. Surreal. A bit scary, even. Because Paraceratherium is both much larger, stronger and stranger than any animal we’re used to, but at the same time – unlike dinosaurs – really not at all dissimilar from some animals we know very well, it occupies the exact uncanny valley between the familiar and the alien, and Flyorov is not afraid to draw out the alien side. Muscular, giant beasts with impossibly long limbs and knobbly knees are coming straight at you, asserting their dominance, all painted in swirly colours in an unfamiliar landscape. It’s a bit like Dali’s elephants (which this predates by a decade). Intense stuff.
Let’s end in the Pleistocene with a rather more subdued, familiar and naturalistic scene, although still painted in broad strokes. We’ve got steppe wisent, giant beavers and the obligatory mammoths. In both palaeoart and the fine arts in general, I find it often the case that great stylists are also quite proficient at straightforward stuff like this. It drives home the point that we often make here, that stylized palaeoart is in no way lesser than realist palaeoart; it is simply a different, equally valid, choice that the artist made, and one that historically has not been made often enough.
How much one should, and indeed even can, separate the art from the artist will probably remain a relevant question for all eternity. For all his personal faults and toxic personality, there can be no denying that Flyorov was an undisputed master of vintage palaeoart who deserves to stand among Hawkins, Knight and Burian as one of the all time greats. His work might not be the most accurate, but in terms of stylistic versatility, originality and imagination Flyorov brought things to the table that nobody else did. It is time for Russian palaeoart to permanently become part of the historic dinosaur canon as a whole. Expect more Soviet dinosaurs from us in the future. до свидания!