Happy new year 2020!
What a decade. To kick off the next one, here’s my first book review, with a twist: I haven’t even read the book. Let me explain!
I heard of Simon Stålenhag’s “dinosaur” series (really, it’s more about paleozoology in general) looking at the aptly named ‘Paleoart’ section of his website, and I remembered it was good. What I had no recollection of was the context in which they were made.
Cue our trip to Stockholm last Autumn, visiting the Swedish Museum of Natural History with a very enthusiastic three year old and his little sibling. Lo! We found ourselves in front of what was left of the 2015 prehistoric exhibition – just a small hemicycle, perfect for snacking- full of gorgeous and very familiar looking dinosaurs. Stålenhag, you again!
Needless to say, after a fantastic visit to the museum, we just couldn’t leave without some prehistoric memorabilia, namely dinosaur socks, a Coelacanth toy and this very art book named Urtidsbilder.
Here’s the catch: the book is only available in Swedish, a language I can decipher only thanks to my knowledge of German and my years spent in Finland (it’s their second official language). As Urtidsbilder is a scientific book before an art book, the text is seemingly describing the animals’ behavior, their approximate size and the time period they existed. This is a good review (in Swedish) describing the content of the text while admitting not knowing much about art, so what follows will be a nice complement: my review of the art without a word about the text. My apologies to the writer, science journalist Anna Davour.
The artworks are gorgeous and very similar in style to Stålenhag’s more popular sci-fi series. His mastery of atmospheric condition are well demonstrated once more and most of his highly cinematic “camera-on-the-ground, telephoto-lens” trademark angle are found.
Even better, he plays around with more risky angles, as with the spectacular Velociraptor shot (I hesitate to use the term painting here as it looks almost like a drone picture).
His penchant for simplified visual language is a double-edged sword. In his sci-fi artworks there is often a lot to look at, from modern ruins to car carcasses, electric poles, weird toys, and so on. As the prehistoric world is thought of as being pristine and untouched the landscapes can be quite barren, sometimes just empty. Each image is contained in a creature, an angle, a specific time and weather condition. One can say this approach emphasizes his skills in storytelling and drama. Just look at these Dimorphodons fighting over a fish under rainy clouds!
The viewer becomes an almost voyeuristic nature photographer, hidden far away or creeping somewhere in the bushes. Speaking of the latter, the flora is beautiful but almost artificial, reduced in shape to an extent where it looks like toy props. Again, it certainly is a conscious decision and I’m only pointing it to separate this depiction of prehistory from, say, James Gurney’s more naturalistic approach.
Stålenhag is proud of his brushwork, as he should be. He mentioned in interviews that he works very hard on making his strokes feel painterly. Had he not already graced us with his aforementioned gallery full of details, I would have done it myself as he proves his point rather eloquently. In some case, such as with the Ichtyornis, it almost feels like zoological depictions from a 19th century encyclopedia. This level of painterly sensibility is too rare in digital illustration.
I have a minor quibble regarding the book printing. When compared to the digital paintings, which you can admire online for free -courtesy of the artist- the colors feel muted, rather dull. Where the color palette is otherwise stunning, as with the Maiasaura, we are left wanting. On the one hand it serves low-light pictures and underwater very well -as with the herd of Psittacaurus or the monstrous Dorudon-, on the other hand depiction of lava and other almost neon-colored attributes of certain species lose their appeal. The book is printed much in the vein of The Electric State, with matte hardcover and identical dimensions.
The other negative point is the rather unfortunate placement of the iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex, with his neck folded right in the center of the book. Had the text and the image been switched, it might have kept the legendary beast intact.
I really cannot say who the target audience is as I can only judge the content of the text from second-hand sources, but Stålenhag completists might want it nonetheless, if only for the stark minimalism and “purity” of approach.
Compared to dinosaur encyclopaedia with hysterical-looking raptors with gaping mouths jumping at the reader that fills the sales bin of libraries, this feels like a huge breath of fresh air. And yes, air is something Stålenhag paints like no other.
Our son loves the book and has identified with Yangchuanosaurus ever since.
The books reviewed are from my personal collection and fully paid for.
- Posted by Paul Takahashi
- On January 9, 2020
- 0 Comments