15 February 2008
Heinrich Harder & the Art of the Prehistoric Landscape
While I was in Germany a couple of years ago I took the train from Berlin to Hamburg. I had a few hours to kill in the morning, and since the Berlin station is directly across the street from the world's largest zoo, I decided I'd pay it a visit. Without a doubt, my favorite part of the zoo was its aquarium/reptile house, not just because of the animals within it, but because of the building itself. It was built in 1913 and is covered in a series of colorful murals of prehistoric animals. I remember thinking at the time that the reconstructions were nicely done, if more than a little dated, and wondering who had painted them. Fast forward to earlier this week; I was looking for paintings of fossil horses that I could use in a presentation, and serendipitously stumbled across those same murals on the Internet. It turns out that the artist's name is Heinrich Harder (who, if nothing else, gets points for being alliterative) and he was quite a prolific painter of prehistoric life. "Paleoartitsry" is a term that has been coined to describe visual depictions of past life, and it is a field as old as paleontology itself. Working in the opening years of the 20th Century, Harder would have been one of the earliest paleoartists; he would, in fact, have been a contemporary of Charles R. Knight, widely recognized as the old master of scientific illustration. Where Knight was known for his detailed knowledge of anatomy and his ability to paint animals in active, lifelike poses, Harder's strength appears to lie in placing his subjects in interesting landscapes. According to what little biographical information I was able to track down, Harder was particularly inspired by the countryside of northern Germany and Scandinavia, as is apparent in his painting of a cave lion, though more exotic landscapes were well within his abilities as well; I particularly like his Hyaenodon in an Everglades-like swamp. I am sure this all seems very arcane and possibly uninteresting to most of my audience (such as it is), but I confess I have always had a soft spot for prehistoric landscapes. It was, in fact, the gloomy, expansive landscapes of Czech paleoartist Zdenek Burian that really cemented my interest in paleontology as a child; I always felt a mixture of excitement, wonder, and a tinge of melancholy when looking over his re-creations of an Ice Age taiga or a wind-blown Carboniferous swamp, and I knew then - as I still do now - that nothing could be as fascinating as reconstructing the world as it once was. Harder's images have a similar effect on me, and I thought I'd do my small part to share his work with the world by way of gratitude for reminding me that, even now, when you can barely turn on the TV without coming across some new series featuring computer-animated dinosaurs, a much simpler work inspired by genuine imagination can be more evocative by far.