Vintage Dinosaur Art: Záhada Dinosaurů – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Today’s book has gotten some attention recently on some of the palaeoart-centered Facebook groups we frequent. It features little-seen but high quality art from the nineties. Once I saw it, I knew I had to track this book down. This was not straightforward. Not only is this book only available in Czech, it is only available from Czech booksellers that only ship to Czechia. I managed to nab a copy off Rostislav Walica, so kudos to him. I now (maybe?) own the only copy of this book in the Netherlands!

It’s called Záhada Dinosaurů, or “The Mystery of the Dinosaurs”. It came out in, you guessed it, 1993, the Year of the Dinosaur. Written in Czech by Jaroslav Mareš, there’s no translations of this book that I’m aware of, and I regret to inform you that my Czech is somewhat rusty. It’s a big, wordy book, though, and from what I can glean by just looking at it, it was quite comprehensive, ambitious and forward-looking for the time. But the main attraction here is the manifold wonderful illustrations by the unsung Barbora Kyšková! There’s a world of relatively unknown palaeoart in Central Europe and Czechia especially that goes far beyond Burian alone.

Most prominent on the cover are Deinonychus and a handful of its maniraptoran kin, as well as the infamous Dinosauroid. The Little Green Dinosaur Man gets a whole dang chapter devoted to it in the book, Lord knows what the author has to say about all that. A quick round of Google tells me that Jaroslav Mareš is a bit of a cryptozoologist, so no doubt the speculative aspect of the Dinosauroid would have intrigued him, as well as its possible connection to grey aliens. We can tell that Mareš must have been quite excited by the Bakkerian ideas of dynamic, intelligent dinosaurs, with Deinonychus being the poster child of the Dinosaur Renaissance. The troodontid even has a tuft of feathers!

As for the illustrator, Barbora Kyšková was mostly active in the realms of children’s and fantasy literature, and I am not aware of any palaeoart she did beyond this book. Nevertheless, she makes a very fine palaeoartist. We can clearly see the influences of Burian, Sibbick, Bakker and Paul, and in the composition and colour use I’m also frequently reminded of her Czech contemporary Jan Sovák. Nevertheless, she manages a style and character all her own, slightly rougher and gnarlier, not naturalistic but expressive and stylized. These are dinosaurs as storybook monsters, knobbly forest goblins rather than majestic dragons. They eat naughty children that wander too far off into the forest, or in this case fluffy mammals.

These are Lagosuchus, a dinosauromorph that was occasionally put forward as a possible dinosaur ancestor. As you can see, Kyšková has given them a mane, possibly intended to be proto-feathers. I wonder if this is an artistic flourish or if she was given instructions by Mareš to do so. Neither would really surprise me. The dreamy, misty forest landscape is very Sovák.

Even more monstrous and expressive are these sinister Coelophysis, who squabble and snap at each other as they gather at night by the pool in the dark forest. They could be orcs, gathering as their chieftain announces their next raid. And, like orcs, they probably wouldn’t be above a bit of cannibalism… It’s typical of Barbora Kyšková’s illustrations that I see the narrative aspect before I see the creatures as scientifically reconstructed animals. My partner was even reminded of Maurice Sendak. So what’s to say about these Coelophysis? Again, they have little tufts of fuzz, though not all to the same extent. An expression of sexual dimorphism, perhaps? A punky hairdo is not out of the ordinary for Coelophysis; around this time you would sometimes see it reconstructed with a mohawk or a heron’s crest by artists such as Sarah Landry and Graham Rosewarne. Trish Arnold wrote about this meme, once upon a time. Again, Mareš is very much influenced by the ideas and idiosyncracies of Bakker. I quite like the one to the right that is facing away from us. The way its neck is bent is particularly birdlike.

Cool stuff. Dilophosaurus has killed a Scutellosaurus, while another Scutellosaurus is standing around gawking like an idiot. Without making it feathered, Kyšková has given it an unmistakably bird-like aspect, with the round, staring eye and the big, muscular bird legs. The arms, by contrast, are distressingly humanoid, as are the pectoral muscles. That is a common pitfall with theropod arms. Other than that, I do love how menacing this one is. There’s another artist I’m reminded of here: Chris Forsey, who does similar things with little details, the wrinkles and bumps that make the animal come alive. I do think Kyšková’s dinosaurs look quite a bit better.

There’s broadly three categories of illustrations in the book; full-page scenic pieces like the ones we’ve seen so far, more neutral side-view spotter’s guide illustrations and black-and-white illustrations which frequently directly recall erlier works by Bakker or Sibbick. This Allosaurus falls into the second category. This one is more lumpen and less detailed than the more narrative illustrations, and I feel the legs are slightly too humanoid, the legs too long and the feet too short. It’s doing that “raah” thing with its claws, like a kid trying to imitate a dinosaur. I do like that Kyšková has given it an interesting abstract background of colours. Here’s a deep cut for you: it has the same white-and-auburn colours as the Allosaurus in Zoo Tycoon.

More elaborate allosaurs here. These are meant to be Epanterias, a proposed genus given by Cope to some scrappy bits of non-diagnostic giant Jurassic allosaur. Have you seen other reconstructions of Epanterias? Essentially, Kyšková is doing an Allosaurus piece here. The tall horns are immediately striking, as are the scutes on the animal’s backs. Again, the dinosaurs have highly expressive faces, with the back one looking threatening and stern while the other is hunched and seems more demure, like it’s being dominated. There’s hints of blood but no graphic gore. The backgrounds in yellow and green are minimal but effective. Great one.

Here we have some extremely Bakkerian and extremely blue Deinonychus looking excited as they run up to meet some colleagues who are busy at work, i. e. killing something bigger. Between this and the cover, there are two very different Deinonychus reconstructions in the book. The cover girl has a JP-snarl, while these have an almost fish-like aspect to them? As if Emily Stepp has taken the baseline animal and added like 30% fish DNA to it? It’s the lips. The arms are quite humanoid again, with those ball-joint shoulders. Again this is one that wouldn’t look out of place among Chris Forsey’s work.

Hold up. This is Deinocheirus? The idea that Deinocheirus might have been a giant dromaeosaur was apparently a serious hypothesis at one time, even though at the time I never heard different but it being probably an ornithomimosaur. Thomas Thiemeyer turned it into this terrifying hunching monstrosity, while here we have more of a dynamic, Bakkerian creature. Look at those proportions. Enormously thicc thighs ending in stick-figure feet, with mean-looking gangly hands to match, and a conniving grin. We’re back in storybook land with this one. Other than that, there’s not much to suggest this is anything but another dromaeosaur. The illustrator has not made any particular attempt at showing the giant scale of the beast.

This one’s awkward, a Troodon in a stumbly pose. Sometimes, when you design an animal that looks okay in one pose, you run into trouble when you try to make it do something else. Why is it not using the claw on its foot to catch the mammal? The hair tuft is back for this one, as is the evil grin. The slender hands are really freaky on this one. Another goblin dinosaur.

Gallimimus is a different beast altogether, and I’m quite partial to Kyšková’s take on it. Although it looks like a Skeksis, it also looks more good-natured than the meanie theropods we’ve seen so far. Again, the feahering is good for the time; a pleasing dark brown coat covering the animal’s back and shoulders. The shape of its beak is interesting. It very much looks like a goose bill, but it seems to have some pseudo-tooth that looks like it would be useful as a can opener. Very emu-like feet on these; Kyšková knows her birds.

This is a rather infamous piece, depicting the end-Cretaceous impact from the point of view of these Nanotyrannus who pose dramatically in horror. The foreground animal is really hamming it up. Woe is me, for I am undone! Would that my arms were long enough, so the back of my wrist could touch my forehead. The validity of Nanotyrannus is a hot potato these days, but its inclusion in a book from the early 90s was definitely a sign of progressivism. Nanotyrannus came from Bakker and was still rather new, so you can tell here that Jaroslav Mareš was paying close attention to the newest developments in palaeontology. What I find noteworthy is that the designs of these theropods, with their deep, tapering, spiked and horned muzzles, have a lot more in common with the Epanterias above than with the Tyrannosaurus below. Apart from the two-fingered hands, they superficially resemble allosaurs far more than tyrannosaurs.

Sexy Rexy itself – presented under the alternative name Dynamosaurus – looks a bit more convincingly like a tyrannosaur. Barbora Kyšková has taken a big swing attempting to reconstruct its body from this tricky angle, but she mostly pulls it off; no doubt the references from Greg Paul’s books were a big help here. The way it lifts up that massive foot is pure Paul. It is still very expressive, in keeping with the rest of the book. The purple sky looks pretty intense. Although I cannot read the text, the placement of this illustration in the book seems to suggest that we’re supposed to be looking at the tyrant scavenging the post-apocalyptic wasteland after the impact. Maybe it’s following a dying animal’s trail?

That will just about do for now. This is a big book with lots of artwork, so I think we’re making a three parter out of this. I haven’t even shown you what crazy stuff happens with the sauropods in this book! Záhada Dinosaurů se vrátí!

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  • Reply
    Zain Ahmed
    April 16, 2024 at 3:17 pm

    Wow, between Epanterias and Dynamosaurus, I wonder what sources Jaroslav Mareš was using at the time.

  • Reply
    Grant Harding
    April 17, 2024 at 10:09 am

    I recognize Mark Hallett’s Dilophosaurus and Greg Paul’s Gallimimus. Some of the others ring a bell too.

  • Reply
    April 17, 2024 at 2:39 pm

    She may be borrowing from other reconstructions, but the atmosphere is all her own. I love the colour choices and the spooky misty lighting. Reminds me of the Dark Crystal or Harryhausens Sinbad epics. Lovely. Thank you so much for sharing a book I would never otherwise have had a chance of seeing! I wonder how many unsung dinosaur books there are that are unknown outside their country of origin? I particularly wonder about African and Asian books–plenty of fossils to get found in those continents, no way for me to find out about any books! I collect children’s books (I mean…they’re for my kid but I love them too) and always pick up the odd foreign one, I have some Aussie ones and a couple Hungarian ones but none featuring dinosaurs sadly. Have you all heard of Whirlaway (1937)? Sort of an Australian Plutonia for little kids, cute illos. It’s available on Project Gutenberg Australia

    • Reply
      Gemma Hazeborg
      April 18, 2024 at 12:59 pm

      Thanks for that suggestion – That’ll definitely get a look in! I’m always looking for palaeoart from all over the world. We’ve covered some Soviet palaeoart on these pages. There’s more Czech stuff I’m looking into now, and very old French books as well. As for the non-European world, I imagine there might be some Asian palaeoart out there I don’t know about, especially from Japan. I’m less optimistic about vintage African palaeoart being out there, but I’d love to find some.

  • Reply
    April 17, 2024 at 6:51 pm

    David Lambert’s (1983) *A Field Guide to Dinosaurs* favorably compared *Deinocheirus* to dromaeosaurids as well as ornithomimids.

    • Reply
      April 23, 2024 at 5:47 am

      True. I remember that from Lambert’s book, and I actually enjoyed imagining Deinocheirus as a giant dromaeosaur when I was a kid.

  • Reply
    Štěpán Jindra
    April 25, 2024 at 6:38 am

    This was a book of my childhood! Jaroslav Mareš is interesting autor, enthusiastic cryptozoologist, but with some real scientific accomplishements as a description of huge beetle Manticora imperator. He pulled out exeptional book for its time in the context of Czech republic. I also loved the illustrations. They were something new and extraordinary, with great stylization, as you mantioned. We didnt have any good translations of foreign titles then, neither language competencies (it was really early after the fall of Iron curtain), so this was probably one of the books that shaped generation here, along with Augustas and Špinars titles.

    • Reply
      Gemma Hazeborg
      April 26, 2024 at 4:35 pm

      Was Jan Sovák known in Czechia then? He was in Canada around this time, but he worked with Špinar.

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