Illustrator Zdenek Burian was born 100 years ago


Furry mammoths with long white tusks wading through snow, a hairy stone-age man chopping wood with a hand-axe... Several generations of Czechs have grown up daydreaming over these photo-like paintings of prehistoric animals and people. The Czech artist Zdenek Burian, one of the great illustrators and painters of prehistoric life, was born a hundred years ago. Even in this age of computer generated images, Zdenek Burian remains unmatched.

Perhaps the world's most prolific paleoartist - that is, artist of the prehistoric world - Zdenek Burian was born in 1905 in the Moravian town of Koprivnice, in an area known for its prehistoric settlements. These archaeological finds might have been the first inspiration for a boy who was to become a master of fossil reconstruction, working with the Czech palaeontologist Josef Augusta.

"We don't know the exact way they got together but they started working together in 1938 and 1939. This was an interesting time because, as you know the universities were closed by the German occupiers. And the professors were suddenly free, they didn't have duties. So many of them started writing textbooks. Professor Augusta, who was here, decided to write a large, extensive description of past life. Of course he had to find someone to illustrate the work. Later in 1938 he found Burian. I don't know how."

Professor Oldrich Fejfar from Prague's Charles University says the cooperation proved lucky for both men and together they revealed to the world what prehistoric monsters and our early ancestors could have looked like. The pictures are used as teaching tools to this day.

"Yes, we use them, of course. Even though they contain some mistakes. But the errors depend on the information available and now we have much more. But anyway, the genius of Burian, the big impression his paintings make, lies in their credibility and suggestiveness. And in this no other painter matches him."

Zdenek Burian's unique vision of prehistoric life has been the source of inspiration for generations of palaeontologists and artists specialised in fossil reconstruction.

"Burian is known abroad and he also has many imitators abroad. I have seen paintings, in Beijing for example. At first glance I thought this must be Burian! But it was not, it was only an exactly repainted Burian. Many artists in America, South America and also in Germany have told me that Burian is the top - we cannot be better than him."

With new fossil finds, more reconstruction has to be done. Professor Oldrich Fejfar carries on with the work.

"We are now trying to do something similar, to continue in this tradition. For example, I try to do the reconstructions in a modern way, in another style but my artist Pavel Major and I say that we will never try to imitate Burian because that would not be honest. I hope our work will be good but we are sure that we will not be better than him."