The Evolution of Paleontological Art
CONTAINS OPEN ACCESS
Fossils have stirred the imagination globally for thousands of years, starting well before they were recognized as the remains of once-living organisms and proxies of former worlds. This volume samples the history of art about fossils and the visual conceptualization of their significance starting with biblical and mythological depictions, extending to renditions of ancient life as it flourished in long-vanished habitats, and on to a modern understanding that fossil art conveys lessons for the betterment of the human condition. The 29 papers and accompanying artwork illustrate how art about fossils has come to be a significant teaching tool not only about evolution of past life, but also about conservation of our planet for the benefit of future generations.
Art about ancient life as a chronicle for the human condition
Published:February 24, 2022
Gary D. Rosenberg*, Patricia Coorough Burke*, 2022. "Art about ancient life as a chronicle for the human condition", The Evolution of Paleontological Art, Renee M. Clary, Gary D. Rosenberg, Dallas C. Evans
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Art about ancient life chronicles the human condition, less evidently but potentially as significantly, as it depicts life through geologic time. Selected examples surveyed here reveal human aspirations, values, conceits, sensibilities, and foibles and suggest that further in-depth study would be warranted. Greek bronzes embellished with griffins (625–575 B.C.E.) may represent ceratopsian fossils mythologized and commodified for their proximity to gold deposits. Encelius’ anthropomorphized drawing (1557) of a fossil bivalve exemplifies a conservative deference to outdated paradigms about nature; inversely, Nicolaus Steno prized geometry—then offering a new perspective on nature—and realized in 1667 that a drawing of “tongue stones” depicted not, as commonly held, simulacra of snake tongues molded by vital forces within the Earth but fossilized teeth of a once living shark; Beringer’s “lying stones” (1726) show how human conceit can bias the interpretation of “fossils.” Artworks since the mid-twentieth century record a growing recognition that ancient life and its habitats evolved together and therefore that art about ancient life has lessons for contemporary environmentalism: Rudolph Zallinger’s diachronous murals (mid-1940s) and the Milwaukee Public Museum’s diachronous dioramas (installed in 2001) display progressions of ancient and contemporary habitats; Alexis Rockman’s dystopian landscapes use ancient and extant life to critique human responsibility for degrading environments and endangering species. We conclude that studies of art about ancient life can deepen our understanding of the human condition and the cultural context in which it is created.