Dinotopia: The Fantastical Art of James Gurney

February 6, 2010 - May 16, 2010



Wall text from the exhibition

James Gurney
James Gurney's Dinotopia books bring to life the world of science and the realm of the imagination. Inspired by his interest in archaeology, lost civilizations, and the art of illustration, Gurney relates the tale of explorer Arthur Denison and his young son Will, who sail from Boston in 1862 on a voyage of discovery. When their schooner is shipwrecked, all on board are lost but the father and son. Washed ashore on the unknown island of Dinotopia, they find a world where, to their amazement, dinosaurs and humans live together in -- for the most part-peaceful harmony and interdependence. Completing the imaginary circle, James Gurney himself -- he tells us-has unearthed Arthur Denison's long-lost journals.
The artist invites us to experience the far reaches of this mysterious destination. He has immersed himself in every detail of Dinotopia, from maps to mechanics to metaphysics. He gives the dinosaurs physical appearances that are consistent with current scientific research and endows them with personalities of his own design.
The young James Gurney loved the imagery of America's historic illustrators, such as Howard Pyle (1853-1911). A childhood museum visit inspired Gurney's appreciation of the prehistoric. After his studies in art and anthropology, Gurney painted naturalistic jungle and volcano backdrops for motion pictures, and mastered fantasy and science-fiction illustration. On assignments for National Geographic, he worked with scientists and historians to recreate and depict long-ago worlds. In his Dinotopia series, he has followed Howard Pyle's advice to step into the picture and fully imagine the scene portrayed, conjuring up a fantastical world while presenting an often witty perspective on our own.
The name Dinotopia is a combination of dinosaur and utopia, two words of Greek etymology. Dinosaur -- in common use since the early 1840s -- means terrible lizard, and utopia has come to mean perfect place. For centuries, literary artists in the Western European tradition have imagined their own versions of a utopia. As a visual artist, James Gurney participates in a 150-year history of dinosaur illustration. The dinosaur as an object of popular culture began with the rather monster-like sculptures of 15 types of extinct creatures at London's Crystal Palace Park in 1854.The lumbering giant sculptures by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins reflected vigorous paleontological debates and increased public understanding of the dinosaurs' role in pre-history. This imagery persisted in Charles Knight's murals of the 1920s in various American natural history museums, and Rudolph Zallinger's murals at the Peabody Museum at Yale University in 1942.
In the 1960s, illustrators began to reflect new paleontological evidence that dinosaurs may have been active and warm-blooded animals, rather than cold-blooded and sluggish, and may have engaged in herding and nesting behavior. Depictions of dinosaurs changed from lizard-like to being more mammalian and bird-like, in active poses and various behaviors. The 1993 science-fiction film version of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park was perhaps the most significant event in raising public awareness of contemporary dinosaur science.


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