Vintage Dinosaur Art: Vasily Vatagin (Part 2)

Vintage Dinosaur Art

It’s time for more Vatagin! Last time I showed you some of the dinosaur-centric works of the old Russian master. There are still some dinosaurs left, but today I will cover mostly the otherprehistoricanimals in his portfolio. As I don’t have a way to date his works except very broadly, I will simply do so in the chronological order of the Earth itself.

Vatagin’s most famous and prominent palaeontological works are those in the “History of Life on Earth” series he made for the Darwin Museum somewhere during the interbellum. We have already seen one or two dinosaur-centric pieces in that series, and this post will cover some more. Let’s see what Vatagin’s Ordovician looks like. Here’s two eurypterids, bugger if I know what they’re called, along with starfish and some really adorable trilobites. This Ordovician sea is barren, gloomy and primordial, a dark and foreboding, even drab world that, in true 20th centruty natural history fashion, was merely waiting for more interesting animals to come along. A world on hold, rather than a fully realized ecosystem in its own right. I’m not sure if we have completely moved past this view yet. What I like about this piece is how you keep seeing new details the longer you look at it, the little details often hidden because of the monochromatic nature of the piece. All the little guys crawling around on the sea floor, the little swimming creatures that the background sea scorpion (Eurypterus?) is going after.

Creatures from the Permian are well-represented in Russia (Perm is itself a region in Russia) and Vatagin, as well as fellow Russian palaeoartists Flyorov and Bystrow, painted the showdown between its most famous Russian sons, Inostrancevia and Scutosaurus, several times. This is an early one, with the gorgonopsid looking extremely reptilian. Both Inostrancevia and Scutosaurus were described from Russia in 1922, so we might be looking at one of the first-ever reconstructions of either of them.

This later version, from what I have dubbed the “postcard series”, shows the animals in a sligtly more modern light, with Scutosaurus in particular much more refined, more detailed and more like a real, robust animal. Inostrancevia, meanwhile, looks absolutely horrifying. Both pieces depict that tense moment just before the predator strikes its prey. Bystrow’s take, look that one up, happens after the kill has taken place, with the gorgonopsid triumphant over its prey.

Here’s another one from the “History of Life”-series, and this time, we’re in the Triassic! I particularly love those gnarly-looking nothosaurs on the shore. They have exceedingly strange heads, but that’s snaggle-toothed sauropterygids for you. I love the leopard-spotted swimming creature, too (Mesosaurus? I’m not too up on my aquatic Triassic reptiles, I’m finding). It’s interesting how Vatagin doesn’t show the sky for this one, except reflected in the gorgeously realized water. The wonderfully subtle colouration of the water suggests that there may be greener pastures on a distant shore, but ultimately, we’re still looking at a rather barren prehistoric world.

Here’s an early Archaeopteryx, probably from before the Russian revolutions. I love the dramatic contrast between light and dark here, with the outline of the foreground animal basically made from negative space. The reconstruction of the animal itself is indebted to Charles Knight, as so much palaeoart is, but a bit more stylized into something more serpentine and fantastical, like a monster bird out of a piece of folk art. The creepy claws and twisted shapes make this one stand out and show that Vatagin, even though he painted subjects from the natural and scientific world, was always a stylist first and foremost, drawn more to the imaginative than the scientific side of palaeoart.

As an aside, I don’t know where Aleksandr Kohts, Vatagin’s scientific advisor at the Darwin Museum, came down on the taxonomic affiliations of Archaeopteryx. It is a myth that its great similarity to dinosaurus wasn’t noticed until the Dinosaur Renaissance, and some experts already picked up on the dinosaur-bird lineage well before the 1960s. This serpentine take on the urvogel might suggest Kohts had a different view on bird origins, but this is mere speculation.

This Archaeopteryx piece is of slightly later date, as seen by the more naturalistic shapes and toned-down claws. It’s interesting how this one still has a great contrast between the light and dark, though in this case, it is the animals that are dark and the backgrounds that are light.

Also inspired by Knight are these Rhamphorhynchus. According to Lescaze, this watercolour dates from 1914 and is the very first piece of palaeoart to come from Russia. It’s absolutely the most old school feeling piece of Vatagin’s, with the draconian visage of the creatures recalling not only Knight but the monstrous antediluvian scenes of people like John Martin and Édouard Riou. This isn’t so much scientific reconstruction as it is the symbolic representation of the savagery of the primordial world.

Contrast that to this Jurassic piece in the “History of Life” series of masterworks. A much more naturalistic scene, though the serpentine neck of the plesiosaur is very old scool. The waves in the water are a masterclass in movement with Vatagin’s signature fine strokes, and there’s a wonderful variety of animals shown, including a rarely-seen thallatosuchid. This image has a story book quality about it, like something you’d see in a very classy picture book.

One of the best pieces in Vatagin’s “History of Life” series has to be this one. There’s a wonderful balance act between the mosasaur in the waves and the Pteranodon on the wing here, reminding me of a yin-yang symbol almost. The mosasaur holds up remarkably well, and the rest of the animals ain’t shabby either. It’s worth nothing that mosasaurs in particular were much more well known to science at the time than dinosaurs were. The pterosaur looks a lot better than the draconian rhamphorhynchoids we’ve seen before, too. I don’t know how I feel about the Archelon there. I know it’s part of the idea of these paintings to show as much as they knew of ancient history at the time, but I feel like it might be one detail too many that makes the scene a bit too busy.

I promised you more dinosaurs. Here’s Vatagin’s early watercolour hadrosaurs, which he probably would have known as Trachodon. Compared to other contemporaneous hadrosaur images, these hold up okay. Compared to the friendly duckbills of Knight and the surprisingly ominous, looming entities of Flyorov, Vatagin’s portrayal of them seems fairly neutral and natural, though there’s no small amount of stylization. Anatomically, they are very weird. What’s up with the front one’s elbow? The tails drag, but they look meaty and heavy and the musculature looks pretty convincing. Vatagin still paints animals I can believe in.

Much stranger are these hadrosaur-like creatures on this postcard, if that is even what they are. Out of all of Vatagin’s images I found, this one is the most broadly sylized, cartoonish and abstracted. There is something giraffe-like about their heads while their torsos are shaped like hippo bodies. If I’m being uncharitable, it seems like he doodled this one out in a few hours.

This is one of the few pieces of Cenozoic mammals of Vatagin’s that I could find. Surprisingly, and contrary to Flyorov, Vatagin didn’t do extinct mammals all that often, but who can resist a good old wooly mammoth? This is one of several mammoth pieces by Vatagin, and there’s a Smilodon piece of his too, somewhere. They look cool and majestic. Despite the natural colours, there is a surreal quality to the style of it. The lead one looks at the viewer unimpressed, as if to say, this is my kingdom, what are you gonna do about it? Well… plenty, but that is another story.

Vasily Vatagin is a fantastic painter. It’s easy to forget about him when comparing him to his more extravagant and experimental pupil Flyorov, but there is a subtlety to Vatagin’s work that has really hit me when doing this review. Though Flyorov dazzling colours and stunning flexibility are no doubt flashier, making him the king of Russian palaeoart, Vatagin’s clever, thin strokes are no less bold and imaginative. There’s something dreamlike about his style, showing that there is a world of wiggle room between totally realistic and totally sylized. Although in his home country Vatagin remains best remembered for his animal art, we would do well to honour him too as a true pioneer of palaeoart and the trailblazer of a small but unique and deeply valuable art scene in Moscow. A true master.

2 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: Vasily Vatagin (Part 2)”

  1. Mesosaurus is Early Permian. I’m guessing that the critter in the water (Triassic scene) is meant to be a Placodont. Less likely, perhaps an early ichthyosaur.

    Archelon: “Better that chicken than ME for once!”

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