Prehistoric Dinosaurs in Art. How to Visit the Russian Palaeoart Exhibition

August 18

The State Darwin Museum has opened the Russian Palaeoart exhibition dedicated to the most scientific genre of fine arts. The exhibition features paintings, art drawings and sculptures by the Russian artists of the 20-21st centuries from the collections of the Darwin Museum, the State Biology Museum named after K.A. Timiryazev, the Zoological Museum of M.V. Lomonosov State University, the Palaeontological Institute named after A.A. Borisyak of the Russian Academy of Sciences and other museums. The exhibits are united by one theme: their main characters are mysterious and enigmatic prehistoric creatures.

Exhibition curators Anna Vasilyeva and Yaroslav Popov tell the audience about the quite recent history of palaeoart and about the most interesting exhibits.

Photo by Maxim Denisov,

Exhibit artifact is ancient, term is modern

The term “palaeoart” appeared not that long ago – in the early 1990s, when American director Steven Spielberg decided to film Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park featuring cloned dinosaurs. Spielberg’s consultant was artist Mark Hallett, a specialist in depicting prehistoric animals.

Each Hallett’s work was preceded by meticulous preparation: a minimum of imagination – a maximum of scientific facts and authenticity. He was exactly the man to introduce the term “palaeoart” being today used not only for modern works but also for earlier ones. When depicting ancient flora and fauna, artists rely on studies.

If we compare the images of a dinosaur belonging to the same species made at different times, we can see dramatic changes in its look. Having incomplete data, at first scientists assumed an inaccurate image of the animal by trying to find an analogue among the currently existing animals. Later, as science was developing, these mistakes were corrected.

For example, earlier they believed that iguanodons – almost three-metre-tall herbivorous dinosaurs – looked like iguanas, and so they were depicted with four legs and a horn in their foreheads. It was later found out that the initially mistakenly considered horn was actually a dinosaur’s finger. Besides, the iguanodon did not look like the iguana at all: later they started to depict it like the kangaroo – resting upon its strong tail. One can see right this kind of the iguanodon – or rather a sculpture made by artist Vladimir Ilyukhin in 1986 – at the Darwin Museum. Today, scientists believe that the tail of these dinosaurs did not touch the ground but was sailing in the air, being kind of a counterweight for the front legs.

Photo by Maxim Denisov,

The Dinosaur – Clumsy or Agile?

The history of palaeoart began long before the emergence of this term – in the first half of the 20th century. From the beginning of 20th century, the images of dinosaurs were used in both scientific and educational literature and popular literature. This was also the time when various educational projects started emerging: for example, London, Hyde Park, opened an exhibition with sculptures of dinosaurs in their natural habitat – a similar one appeared at about the same time at Berlin Zoo. Russia also used to arrange for palaeontological exhibitions with large-scale reconstructions. For example, in 1879 such an exhibition was hosted by Moscow Manege. The audience was curiously watching a grotto with stalactites, models of mammoths, a plesiosaur leaving a pool with a waterfall. This corner of the Ancient World and its inhabitants were recreated by architect Vasily Korneev and sculptor Ivan Sevryugin.

At that time, the knowledge of dinosaurs differed a lot from what we know today. It started changing in the late 1960s when archaeologist James Osborne discovered the remains of the deinonychus. This medium-sized (somewhat taller than three metres) dinosaur was fundamentally different from those found before that. Previously, scientists believed that all prehistoric dinosaurs were huge sluggish monsters, but now it turned out that quite agile animals already existed hundreds of millions of years ago.

In a step-by-step way, scientists came to a conclusion that all the dinosaurs they knew at that time were much more graceful and intelligent than they thought. They also revised their ideas about marine dinosaurs: now experts realised that they were creatures somewhat similar to the modern dolphins and cetaceans rather than clumsy snakes. Artists started depicting them in a corresponding manner.

One more important discovery was made in 1996 when the remains of the first feathered dinosaur were found in China. After that, scientists started to think that dinosaurs were probably birds rather than lizards. Palaeoart experienced a change in images: many dinosaurs acquired feathers, became even more graceful and agile, while some of them developed all kinds of crests, vivid colours.

The exhibition features a plaster sculpture of the archaeopteryx (1936). Its remains discovered in 1861 generated lots of buzz – this creature was considered a transitional link between reptiles and birds. However, artist Vasily Vatagin depicted it lizard-like based on the ideas about dinosaurs of his time. Next to the archaeopteryx, one can see a pterodactyl made of thermoplastic and faux fur created in the 2010s by artist Sergey Kruskop. This archaeopteryx has feathers.

The exhibition largely features images of dinosaurs as overweight, clumsy, awkward animals – in compliance with the ideas popular at the initial stage of palaeoart development. The latest scientific discoveries are reflected in paintings made by contemporary artists working with computer graphics – Sergey Krasovsky, Vladimir Konstantinov and others.

Miniature Giants

The most popular ancient animal with remains found in the territory of Russia is the mammoth. The first mammoth was found in 1799, on the banks of the River Lena: hunter Osip Shumakhov accidentally came across tusks sticking out of an ice block. The tusks were cut down and sold. Having heard of this find, Russian scientists went on an expedition to find the entire skeleton. Now it is kept in the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

There were many other finds as well: for example, a huge mammoth cemetery was found in 1957 in Novosibirsk Region, on the Volchya Griva hill. The results of numerous expeditions of different years turned out to be impressive, and today scientists believe that this place may be a home to the remains of a thousand more species.

The Darwin Museum’s exhibition has many miniature exhibits depicting these giants (their height reached 5.5 metres, while their weight could be 15 tons). One of them is a glazed porcelain figurine made by animal sculptor Aleksandr Belashov.

Palaeoartists not only recreate the look of extinct animals but also turn to fantasy dedicated to the Ancient World. One of such works is the sculpture Mesozoic Asteroid by artist Vladimir Ilyukhin, one of the most famous contemporary stonecutters. The author created granite thrown up dinosaur head watching a metal meteorite approaching from space. One more artist’s work is the Archean named after the most ancient stage of life on Earth. The sculpture is a smoothly polished stone of an ancient rock – billions of years ago, such rocks constituted a typical landscape.

Reflections about extinct animals inspire artists to create objects with a quite utilitarian purpose. One of the exhibits is a plaster copy of a gutter outlet, a narrow channel that helps drain rainwater from building roofs. This copy has a shape of a skull of the scutosaurus – a dinosaur that lived during the Permian period in the territory of modern Russia. The original version created by sculptor Ramil Sherifzyanov in 1988 is in collection of the Palaeontological Institute.

Photo by Maxim Denisov,

Palaeontologists and Their Pets

The work of artists and sculptors would have been impossible without palaeontologists’ work. They are domestic researchers who made a huge contribution to the study of the geological history. Artist Nadezhda Lipatova dedicated a series of drawings called Palaeontologists and Their Pets to them.

Photo by Maxim Denisov,

The dinosaurs described by Russian scientists really look like tame animals in drawings. The clumsy hippopotamus-like estemmenosuchus, the small predator syodon (both lived in the Middle Permian era) behave like domestic cats and dogs in these drawings.

The scientists portrayed by Lipatova are Petr Chudinov, Stepan Kutorga, Mariya Pavlova. One of the artist’s works is dedicated to Palaeontological Museum founder Yury Orlov examining the design of a future building in the drawing.


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