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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Zdenek Burian

Encampment of Late Paleolithic Hunters, Zdenek Burian
Prehistoric Artist, 1961,
Zdenek Burian
When we talk about history painting and the high regard in which such artist were held (at least until the advent of photo-journalism), we're usually speaking of art from the Renaissance until the late 19th century, though the events they depicted often occurred well before that time. Photography pretty much put an end to history painting in conjunction with what's come to be known as "art for art's sake" and its broader designation of Modern Art. However, what about Pre-history painting? We all know about cave painting and prehistoric art. But what about paintings of cave painters? We're talking Cro-Magnon, Neanderthals, and other bipeds dispersed over the thousands of years of human existence (right). And before that, dinosaurs, pterodactyls, invertebrates, and all manner of creatures from the Jurassic, Cambrian, and Paleolithic eras, all brought to life on canvas by Czech artist, Zdenek Burian. This might well be history painting to end all history painting, a man whose life's work numbered between 15,000 and 20,000 paintings and drawings.

Zdenek Burian's work reflects a firm belief in evolution at every level.
Wooly Mammoth, Zdenek Burian--
dynamic history painting beyond
academic illustrations.
Born in Moravia in 1905 (now the Czech Republic), Zdenek Burian seems to have had as a child much the same fascination with dinosaurs many preteen children have today. Like children today, this interest combined with a talent for drawing such creatures. By the beginning of WW II, Burian was working with Czechoslovakian universities in rendering accurate painted images illustrating their research findings. With the closing of all such schools during the war, Burian took up illustrating books, everything from Robinson Caruso to Tarzan. Since then, he has illustrated over 500 books plus more than 650 covers as well. After the war, Burian's work and reputation spread outside his homeland. Burian moved from illustrating children's storybooks to large format (what we often term "coffee table books") volumes featuring full-color illustrations of primitive mankind up to and including the present.

Tracodons Meet a Tyrannosaurus, Zdenek Burian
Zdenek Burian
It's likely that, more than any other artist, the work of Zdenek Burian has been the most influential in shaping our childhood as well as adult scientific visions of what virtually every prehistoric creature must have looked like. Burian was nothing if not reliably accurate as to known details, with an inherent flair for the dramatic where Paleolithic authenticity was lacking. The makers of the movie, Jurassic Park, were said to have been influenced by his work. Yet never is there a feeling that Burian lacked a sense of color or compositional design, his work equal parts art and science. Through his paintings especially, we gain as much a sense of history as in the work of any painter of more recent events. And judging by the number of Burian's paintings featured as Internet wallpaper today, his work may be even more popular than at his death in 1981. It wouldn't be going to far to say Zdenek Burian humanized pre-human history.

Tarzan of the Apes, Chapter XVI, 1973, Zdenek Burian.


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