ancient memories

A couple of days ago I visited the venerable Museum of Natural History. Caught between appointments with too much time to kill, I decided to see the Silk Road exhibition. It had quite a bit of really provocative information and was quite a show-stopper of an installation—I may eventually write something on it here, but this post isnt about that. It's about a somewhat sidelined hallway mural on the fourth floor. In a niche at the end of one of the dinosaur galleries is the 25 foot tall Flying Reptiles by Constantin Astori (1889-1975). A Russian artist who came to New York in 1923, Astori worked for the Smithsonian and the Cooper Hewitt as a restorer. The American Museum of Natural History commissioned him to paint a mural in 1940, and Flying Reptiles is signed 1942.

Oddly, as soon as I saw it, it was familiar to me from a very early, distant memory, although I had no specific childhood recollection of it. Perhaps it was reproduced in one of my books on dinosaurs (an avid interest circa ages 5 through 10)? In doing a little armchair research I rediscovered another very familiar mural: the magnificent Age of Reptiles by Rudolph Zallinger. (Interestingly, like Astori, Zallinger was a Russian, from Siberia). Age of Reptiles is a massive 110 foot long fresco panorama completed in 1947 at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. (I'm ashamed to say in my 4 years in New Haven I never did get over to the Peabody—I intend to go in August.) The mural was reproduced in several dinosaur books in the late 60s/ early 70s and that's how I know it.
Age of Reptiles (detail) Rudolph Zallinger
Zallinger was by far the better draftsman but there is something I love about Astori's Flying Reptiles. Somehow, his mural conveys "Lair of the Zorgons on planet Rilor" in a loopy science fiction sort of way, rather than "speculative view of life on prehistoric earth." Its a bit humorous (see the pterosaur antics in the details above) and I half expect to see a Maxfield Parrish nymph perched one of the rocks, nevertheless I'm simply drawn into that fabulous compositional spiral toward an ancient technicolor sunset.


Doug Clouse said...

That is my favorite painting in the museum as well. After this scorching July, it suggests the future as well as the past!

Therese said...

I recognized the "Age of Reptiles" painting from a series of children's encyclopedias we had when I was a kid. Our copy with the dinosaurs was well read. It may be outdated by today's standards, (especially in its portrayals of T-Rex and Triceratops) but back then to my dino-obsessed mind, it was a gift from dino-paradise! Then in 1966 (at age 5) I saw the traveling Sinclair Dinosaur Exhibit in nearby Vestal, NY. I just came across this link that brought back a flood of memories. Did you get to see this back then?


Thanks for the memories, and now I'll have to look up the full version of that painting!

angela said...

Wow I had no idea those dinosaur figures were a travelling exhibit at any point. Have just seen photos.

I read in that link they were originally at the 64 World's Fair?? When did they stop circulating I wonder... Sounds like their heyday was a little too early for me.


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