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Interview: Zoë Lescaze on Paleoart

Note: This interview was contributed by Christian Kammerer.

Zoë Lescaze is an art critic and historian based in New York. I recently met with Ms. Lescaze while she was in Berlin promoting her new book, Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, an enormous tome covering much of the history of the genre. Among the topics we discussed were the destroyed and reconstructed paleontological mosaics on the walls of the Berlin Zoo (figured in her book), the obscure history of South American and South African paleoart, the fierce rivalries between Soviet paleoartists and the role of paleontology in communist Russia, and the pitfalls of the modern paleoart scene, bemoaning both the inadequate work opportunities for talented paleoartists and the (related) influx of cheaply-produced CGI renderings as prehistoric stock art. The bulk of the interview, however, focused on the complicated relationships between art, history, and science in influencing paleoart and a public understanding of prehistory. An edited version of this discussion is presented here, accompanied by selected reproductions from the book.


Christian Kammerer: As an art critic, what got you interested in paleoart? It seems like a relatively under-appreciated genre.

Zoë Lescaze: Probably a longstanding affection for the “under-appreciated" and neglected corners of fine art and natural history art. I’ve always been interested in the intersections between art and science, starting when I was a child, half growing up in the natural history museum in New York. I lived downtown and tried to turn my bedroom into that museum—collecting little bits of dead things that I’m sure my parents appreciated cluttering up the shelves: fossils and feathers and bones. From there I went to university for fine art and art history, and wrote my honor’s thesis on early 20th century taxidermy dioramas, specifically ones at the American Museum of Natural History, and specifically as they related to the paintings of the American artist Walton Ford. After graduating and moving back to New York, I began working as an art journalist for a newspaper there, ended up meeting Walton, and found we shared an interest in the natural history museum and an interest in nature not just as it exists in a vacuum, “untouched”, but also as it exists in the human imagination and the subjective fantasies that people project onto the natural world. And how that comes across in art—in these ostensibly scientific, sober images there is of course a lot of fear and fantasy and drama and idealism at play. And so together we talked about this book [Paleoart] and Walton had published his monograph with Taschen, and that’s what led to the creation of the book, but my interest in science in art is a lifelong one.


CK: Paleoart exists largely outside of the mainstream world of art history and criticism, I would say maybe even to a larger degree than much of what is considered “outsider art”, despite the fact that for the most part it is made by very technically proficient artists and frequently designed to be hung on the walls of museums. Why do you think there is such a disconnect between, say, one side of Central Park and the other [referring to the opposing locations of the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art], with lots of art in one museum attracting no critical discourse versus one of the most intensely studied collections in the world?


ZL: I think it’s a larger problem of illustration in general, where it has second class citizenship to “fine art” proper. I think there has been increasing interest in visual culture that is not traditional fine art—advertisements, for instance, and what they can tell us about what’s going on culturally at any given moment. I’m interest in paleoart because it often reveals as much about us as it does about an “Era of Giant Reptiles”. A dinosaur painting in Soviet Russia looks different from one painted at the height of the British Empire, or in occupied France, or WWII-era New Haven, Connecticut. So I think these really are very complex, rich, revealing cultural records, but illustration is rarely viewed that way. And while the scholarship on natural history illustration has increased wildly over the past 50 years, I think it has been more focused on more traditional themes like ornithological drawings—plenty has been written on John James Audubon, for instance. And part of that, I think, is also that herons still look like herons, flamingos still look like flamingos. The earliest images in [Paleoart] some people might not even recognize as images of prehistoric reptiles, they might think they are engravings of dragons.


The Primitive World, by Adolphe François Pannemaker, 1857


And that’s part of what makes paleoart interesting—a single species may look different between the work of one artist and the next, depending on his aesthetic predilections, the available scientific information, and what is going on culturally/politically at the time. There is very little coherency to paleoart as a genre, which makes it hard to wrap one’s mind around as a cohesive art form. This makes it “extra-invisible”, even more so than other forms of scientific art. Another big part of it is that we are so used, now, to walking into natural history museums and seeing paintings of dinosaurs, seeing temporary tattoos of dinosaurs, seeing Jurassic Park, where we are already very saturated with this sort of imagery.


CK: Sure, so many people had dinosaur toys as kids.


ZL: Right, and any school kid can draw a T. rex now, but that wasn’t always the case, and it’s hard to remember that wasn’t always the case. We are so familiar with them and they are such an iconic part of so many people’s childhoods that we don’t think about them as something humans had to invent, and start, and figure out, and that some of our most dearly held convictions about the prehistoric world are artistic inventions.


CK: Interesting that you bring up changes in representation through the years, because the idea of scientific accuracy is another thing, where paleoart may be under-appreciated on purely artistic merits because of how obsolete some of these representations have become. This is true even in the relatively recent past; right now, for instance, there is a pushback against “naked”, that is, unfeathered or unfurred, lightly-muscled representations of animals.


ZL: “Shrink-wrapped”?


CK: Yeah, for example Ely Kish, whose work you show in [Paleoart], some people would say, “Oh, she’s a bad artist”, because her dinosaurs are emaciated. I feel like because paleoart interest is, at least currently, more on the scientific side than the artistic side [i.e. greater among paleontologists than art critics/historians], that leads to a lot of art history getting swept under the rug. Indeed, [Kish’s] mural at the Smithsonian, depicting the history of prehistoric sea life, is currently being removed.


Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus, by Ely Kish, ca. 1976

ZL: Definitely—I saw it the week before it was ripped out.


CK: I understand the need to remove it for the renovation—they want to be able to show off the “state of the art” in our science.


ZL: And it’s the Smithsonian, but then again you have the Field Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History all still proudly display great works of paleoart that are no longer scientifically accurate, but are recognized as being part of the story of paleontology as a tradition. It definitely depends on the priorities of the institution.


CK: Yes, they are “part of the story”, but they aren’t the primary story, right? Another one of the issues with paleoart is that no matter how well it is done, if it is in a natural history museum, even an acknowledged masterpiece like [Charles R.] Knight’s “Tyrannosaurus facing Triceratops” is, in the context of the display, secondary to the actual tyrannosaur and Triceratops skeletons in there. Visitors come in and see the bones and go, “Oh my gosh! T. rex!” [n.b. the specimen under the aforementioned mural is actually Gorgosaurus], and only later do they look up at the painting on the wall. So how do you feel about trying to bring paleoart into the museum world on its own merits: do you think it can be done, and should it be done, divorced from a [fossil] display context?


ZL: I would love to curate an exhibition of paleoart, and think it can hold up independently of being shown with the fossils. But I do disagree with the idea that it is completely secondary to the fossils—I think that it helps a lot now that we have fossils regularly displayed on armatures in [3-dimensional] space in the shape of the animals, but that wasn’t always the case. And especially then, having a painting was almost of primary importance. Now this has shifted, and there is that one-two where you first look at the bones, but then you glance at the painting and think, “Oh, I’m looking at something that had green skin, or yellow-and-purple stripes”, and that gives it a whole other dimension of visibility. Paleoart is important to paleontology more so, perhaps, than other forms of illustration are to other branches of science, if only because no one has ever seen these things alive, and we need art to help us bring them to life.


Tarbosaurus and Armored Dinosaur, by Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, ca. 1955

CK: You mention wanting to curate a paleoart collection—that would be for public display, but moving onto the topic of ownership of these works, do you think that [art world] prejudices against paleoart also extend to the art collection world? I’ve only known of one dedicated private collector of paleoart, John Lanzendorf in Chicago [namesake of SVP’s Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize]. If anything, it seems like there is a bigger push towards fossils themselves as private display items, which is very problematic for we paleontologists. Do you feel that there may be a market for paleoart to help fill that desire?


ZL: I mean, it would be great if people started appreciating [paleoart] on a commercial level, because that helps prevent things from being destroyed, right? One of the reasons I was excited to do this book was because as works of paleoart are rendered obsolete by new scientific discoveries, as we touched on, these things can get kicked by the wayside, taken off display and stored in the best case scenario. But there are paintings in scientists’ offices that are only there because they fished them out of dumpsters after there had been a housecleaning.


CK: I have done that myself.


ZL: Thank you! So yes, if this book brought any attention to the idea of, “Oh, these works might be valuable even if the dinosaur is dragging its tail on the ground”, that would be great. If people started wanting to buy [paleoart], great. Because I want these things to survive. The reason I think there isn’t a market has a lot to do with what we were talking about earlier: the “illegibility” of older images. You can throw a John James Audubon eagle on the mantelpiece and it looks very handsome in your den, but if you have a painting of a T. rex that doesn’t even look like what we think a T. rex should look like now, it’s not only “wrong”, but it’s also kitsch, you know? Dinosaurs themselves suffer guilt by association in that they are popular with children and “mass audiences”, and that’s doomsday for anything being revered on a fine art note.


CK: Going back to the book, requisite coverage of [Benjamin Waterhouse] Hawkins aside, it deals primarily with 2-dimensional (or “semi-2-dimensional” in the case of the Moscow mosaics) paleoart. Do you have any commentary on paleoart statuary, whether it has been less important in the history of the field, or to what degree to you think it could be the subject of an entirely different book?


Tree of Life, by Alexander Mikhailovich Belashov, 1984

ZL: It’s more the latter, there is so much paleoart and media that I had to be selective in the scope of the project. Sculpture work requires another kind of photography, for instance, and it was hard enough to hire a [painting] photographer in Vilnius, Lithuania that could drive around to places like the Czech Republic, to zoos and museums [to photograph the works of Zdeněk Burian]. I think 3-dimensional art is very important, but there is less of it. What is out there, though, is very cool. The image that is on the cover [of Paleoart] comes from the Orlov Paleontological Museum in Moscow, as do some of my other favorite paintings in the book.


CK: I’ve spent a lot of time at that museum.


ZL: Great! So you know the courtyard there.


CK: Yeah, incredible statues there, from the eurypterid all the way up through time to mammoths.


ZL: Exactly, and descending these tiers like Roman senators!


CK: Walls lined with grotesques of “mammal-like reptiles”.


ZL: I had also wanted to include the caryatids in Vienna [at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien], the ones in the fossil halls where they look properly freaked out by what they are holding.


CK: Wrestling an ichthyosaur…


ZL: Just disgusted by a pterosaur. And so, yes, I think that [3-dimensional paleoart] is fascinating, but you also won’t see, for the most part, movies in the book, let alone things like—well, I was sort of casually collecting 8,000 images of the covers of pulp novels, and there is a rich WWII tradition of dinosaurs fighting tanks and stuff, but there’s just so much.


CK: Especially when you get into that sort of “hard kitsch” aspect of it. That line is, as you say, inherently blurry, because of mass interest in dinosaurs in particular. But the inflection point, I would say, might be the Sinclair dinosaurs, which you do mention [in Paleoart], from the World’s Fair, which were, for the time, very scientifically rigorous and accurate models, but which are known today largely in the form of the 3-inch plastic toys that they spawned. It’s hard, because there is a nearly unbroken line there between cheap, mass-produced toys and scientifically rigorous art.


ZL: Yes.


CK: Regarding other things where you could not fit everything into the book, why did you decide to cut off the timeline essentially right at the start of the “Dinosaur Renaissance”? That is one of the pivotal moments in the history of paleoart, and especially how artists influenced public understanding of dinosaurs as agile, active animals.


ZL: That was a decision also somewhat based on the constraints we’ve discussed. Also, if one is going to present the genre, art historically, for the first time, there’s just a lot of ground to cover in the formative years that must be cohesively collected and discussed. And for me as an art historian and not a scientist (albeit a scientifically-inclined art historian), I am most concerned with the cultural fantasy that exists when there is less scientific evidence available. So, those early years where one artist will paint an Iguanodon


CK: When you only have an isolated bone to go on.


ZL: Yeah, “Here’s a tooth, paint that”; that’s really interesting, and when you see the most variety, and the most interpretive whimsy and nightmarish wonkiness, and I was interested in analyzing that. Not that our images of dinosaurs now are, “Oh, we finally figured it out.” We obviously haven’t, and we’re getting more every day in terms of feathers and pigment and things like this, and the bidding is still open in many ways. But when you can do DNA analysis and computer modeling and stress tests and see the wear on a femur and say, “It must have run like this, it must have stood like that”, there’s more [scientific rigor than ever] in the reconstructions. It’s still a hugely creative endeavor, and I don’t mean this as an insult to contemporary paleoartists whom I respect tremendously, but it is less of a fantastical view.


CK: I feel like you have to go outside of dinosaurs and fossil mammals, into some of the more obscure and poorly known groups to really get into the “Wild West” of representations. If you go into the Paleozoic, for example—I specialize in, well, these guys [points to gorgonopsian therapsid on cover of Paleoart].


Inostrancevia Devouring a Pareiasaurus, by Alexei Petrovich Bystrow, 1933


ZL: Inostrancevia!


CK: Yeah, for them you’re still dealing with a lot of taxa where we have no skin impressions, no real understanding of their integument. And when you get into invertebrates, going back to the Cambrian Explosion “weird wonders” you have cases where we don’t even know how these animals are put together. There are cases where only fairly recently have we realized that certain animals were reconstructed upside-down for decades. In some cases even in just the past five years have we found that most everything we thought we knew about how certain taxa lived and moved was wrong. So, there are still some “monsters” out there.


ZL: “Here be dragons.”


CK: Finally, moving forward for both paleontologists and art historians, what attitudes do you think need to change about paleoart and what concrete steps can be taken to realize that?


ZL: My “five year plan for paleoart”? I think on the scientific side, of course there are many scientists and institutions who value their paleoartistic holdings, but there are also institutions and scientists and museum directors who really don’t give a damn, and wonder why storage space is getting taken up by these inaccurate images. So I would call for less trashing of the scientifically obsolete and a little more recognition of their cultural and historical value, and generally more of a culture of public display, and that is where more art historians could get involved. There are art historians who focus on natural history illustration, but as I’ve said, the emphasis tends to be on contemporary animals, not so much the extinct ones. It would be great if more art historians could train their powers on [paleoart], because there is just so much scholarship to be done. The research process for this book was extremely thorny, if only because these works are not properly organized and catalogued [to art museum standards]. It was often, “Oh, we have this, this, and this”, but then pulling them out between shelves of skulls, applying a tape measure, and snapping a cell phone pic to show me what they had.


CK: Well, different priorities, as I’m sure those skulls were exhaustively catalogued.


ZL: Yes, those were all numbered. Now, that made it fun, to travel around and “discover” stuff, but not easy, and I think if interest in this genre expands it will be a boon to everyone involved. This book is the first time that some of these works will be publicly viewable, and it would be great if the works themselves were put on display to foster more exhibitions and publications. I don’t want to call any particular institutions out, but there are incredibly prominent works—perhaps the most prominent work?—that is just in storage, which I think is lamentable. These works are important as scientific and cultural history and deserve to be seen.


Laelaps, by Charles R. Knight, 1897

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