Zdenek Burian - signature

Zdenek Burian - Srdce illus Well, I don't read Czech or Slovak, so I've had to piece together most of what follows. If I make some factual errors, it's not from lack of effort. Much of the following biographical data is from a short essay by Camille Cazedessus, Jr. in his long running fanzine, ERBdom, issue #68, March 1973.

Zdenek Burian - SrdceZdenek Burian (Zdenek is pronounced "Zeh-DEN-yeck" because there's a little "v" over the n. "Burian is "BURR-ee-yahn" - pronounciation courtesy of the eminent William Stout - thanks, Bill.) was born in 1905 in Moravia, Czech Republic. He was to become one of the most influential depicters of prehistoric life of the century, rivaled only by Charles R. Knight.

In 1923 he was enrolled as "a student in the second year" at the Academy of Graphic Arts in Prague. I assume that to be equivalent to a Sophomore in college. He was a published illustrator at the time. Apparently he wasn't making a living at it, though, as he worked as a construction laborer to pay his tuition. He flunked out of school and moved outside of Prague. He performed odd jobs for a living while he painted adventure illustrations, effectively teaching himself "using different techniques" until developing his own style. The economy of the time forced him further into the surrounding countryside where he became a "backwoodsman" for a time, living off the land. This personal bond with nature would follow him his entire life and give his paintings a reality that was honest and special.

Zdenek Burian a Paleontologie (Zdenek Burian and Paleontologie), by Vladimir Prokop, in what I take to be a listing of his published work, lists illustrations for an edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's David Balfour in 1921. That would make him 16. Other illustration work followed, and in 1927 he began a long association with the publisher Vilimek. His work began to appear in their magazines for boys: World of Adventure and Young Readers. The following year he illustrated, among other books, Srdce, by Edmondo de Amicis. The frontispiece to the book is above left and one of the many line drawings is above right.

Zdenek Burian - Kipling Throughout the 1930's he primarily illustrated stories by both Czech and English/American writers. A lot of it was Western fiction by the likes of James Oliver Curwood, Zane Grey, and a German author named Karel May. Also receiving the Burian touch were translations of Kipling, Verne, Dumas, London, etc. The image at right is from 1937 for a Kipling story. Quite an improvement over the Srdce illustration of nine years previous. A lot of this material was done for another publisher with whom he had a long-term relationship, TaM. He would work for both TaM and Vilimek almost into the 1950's.

Zdenek Burian - a Paleontologie Also during this time, his fascination with prehistory was first manifest. a Paleontologie shows two examples from this period. One is a 1932 scene of Neanderthals fleeing a herd of mastodons and the second, from 1935, is at left and presages the Augusta books that were soon to come.

Burian made a trip to nearby Italy during the late thirties, but was never to leave Czechoslovakia again.

Augusta is Professor RNDr. Josef Augusta, DrSc. and spent a majority of his career as a paleontologist in the attempt to clearly describe and communicate the past to modern readers. "Perhaps (his) greatest assets are his ability to convey the significance of vast numbers and huge sizes, and the way he succeeds in linking the distant past of our planet with our modern life." His association with Burian can be traced as far back as 1941, when his name first appears in the a Paleontologie bibliography.

By the way, I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure that the title of Prokop's biography is a pun of sorts. Paleontology is the 'study of the past' and this book is an exploration into the past of this great artist.

World War II constrained Burian's output considerably. The Prokop bibliography contains over a dozen entries for almost every year of the decade through to 1941, with over 20 entries for 1939. There are only four listings, total, for the years 1943 and 1944, with zero for 1945. After the war he again is working with Augusta in 1947 - drawing the past. The work they did together, from images like the mastodons* at right from 1941, to their work up to Augusta's death in 1968, was magnificent and represented some of the most current views of prehistoric life at the time.

*This image appears in Mammoths, Life Before Man and Dawn of Man.

Zdenek Burian - Mammoth herd

Their published efforts, eventually translated into English and printed in the early 1960's by Paul Hamlyn in England, include:

Prehistoric Animals

47 pages of text, 60 illustrations (half in color). (10.25"x13.75"). The 1955 film, Journey to the Primeval Age, was based on this book and won prizes at the Mannheim and Venice Film Festivals.

1956 Zdenek Burian - Prehistoric Animals
Prehistoric Man

45 page introduction by Augusta, 52 plates (25 in color, 17 in limited color or b&w). (10.25"x13.75")

1960 Zdenek Burian - Prehistoric Man
Prehistoric Reptiles and Birds

104 pages, 36 illustrations, including 15 color plates. (9.5"x10.75") Two b&w images from A.C. Doyle's The Lost World.

1961 Zdenek Burian - Prehistoric Reptiles and Birds
A Book of Mammoths

19 color plates (five double page), eleven duotone plates (one double page) and numerous small b&w pencil drawings. (10.25"x13.75")

1963 Zdenek Burian - A Book of Mammoths
Prehistoric Sea Monsters

67-page b&w illustrated introductory text by Augusta, 22 plates (18 in color and four of those are double page) (10.25"x13.75")

1964 Zdenek Burian - Prehistoric Sea Monsters
The Age of Monsters

23 color plates (four double page), 80 pages text by Augusta illustrated with b&w fossil photos. (10.25"x13.75")

1966 Zdenek Burian - The Age of Monsters
Life Before Man

(text Zdenek V. Spinar) 228 pages. 162 color illustrations, many (all?) taken from the six Augusta books listed above. (8.5"x11")

1972 Zdenek Burian - Life Before Man
The Dawn of Man

(text Josef Wolf) 231 pages. 254 illustrations, 190 in color, many (all?) taken from the six Augusta books. (8.5"x11")

1978 Zdenek Burian - The Dawn of Man

Zdenek Burian - Cro-Magnon Hunter His work was much more than just creating illustrations for text. He created his drawings "under the direction of " Augusta, implying a close collaboration that resulted in the most accurate (for the time) recreations of the fauna and flora of the early earth. The images were very popular and appeared in many books about dinosaurs and prehistoric man. Burian's attention to detail and his knowledge of nature helped him create the definitive views of the past for those of us growing up in that era. That Cro-Magnon hunter at left was a very familiar image when I "rediscovered" it in my copy of Prehistoric Man in the 1970's.

Zdenek Burian - Robinson Crusoe Jumping back a bit, his work in the 1950's and 1960's wasn't all devoted to reconstructing the past. At right is an image from Robinson Crusoe done in 1955 and below is one of his many Tarzan illustrations, this probably from 1969. The image is from the aforementioned ERBdom #68. Caz also published a portfolio of his Tarzan drawings in 1973 called Jungle Scenes of Tarzan. Wish I could find my copy.

It's been estimated that Burian illustrated over 500 books, stories and articles during his career. The pundits put the grand total of his drawings and paintings in the 15,000 range. When you consider that less than 500 of these are the paleontological recreations for which he is so well known, you realize that there is a rich collection of fantastic illustration sitting on the shelves of many a Czechoslovakian library.

Burian died in 1981, actively working up until his death. I don't know the location of the many thousands of his originals, but I hope that some enterprising Czech will make the brilliant step of crafting a collection of his work for international sale. I know I'd buy one (or ten).

Zdenek Burian - Jungle Scenes of Tarzan


To learn more about Zdenek Burian, see:

ERBdom #68 Camille Cazedessus, Jr. 1973
Zdenek Burian - a Paleontologie Vladimir Prokop, 1990 Vydal Ustredni Ustav Geologicky
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 1998

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This page written, designed & © 1998 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

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