Claudia Massie

The genius of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen

Few artists of the 20th century can compete with Harryhausen's illusive brilliance or reach

Few artists of the 20th century can compete with Harryhausen’s brilliance and reach: skeleton models from Jason and the Argonauts, c. 1962. Credit: © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation Photography: Sam Drake (National Galleries of Scotland)

Modern Two in Edinburgh reopens this week, and what more fitting subject for a show in a time of global catastrophe than Ray Harryhausen, titan of cinema, creator of beasts, destroyer of cities, king of adventure?

If you were near a screen at any point during the Cold War, you almost certainly watched Harryhausen movies. The tentacled Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, so realistic it was awarded an X certificate upon arrival in Britain; the mythical marvels of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad; and the vicious skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts captivated generations of viewers. These indelible creations, all handmade by one man, the animator, special-effects pioneer and producer Ray Harry-hausen, have become a magical fixture in our collective imagination.

If the mark of quality is an ability to transport us into another world, then there are very few artists of the 20th century who can compete with Harryhausen in terms of either illusive brilliance or reach.

Harryhausen turned his mother’s fur coat into an animated cave bear in his garage studio

He was, of course, a tremendous artist in the traditional sense too. His concept drawings — joyously cinematic, richly graphic and characterised by a determined use of line that recalls Käthe Kollwitz or Honoré Daumier — would merit an exhibition of their own. It is easy to see in these fantastical drawings, which lay out the inner workings of the Harryhausen mind, the influence of the prolific French illustrator Gustave Doré and the strange, melodramatic Northumbrian fantasy landscape painter John Martin. There’s a theme here of entertainment, escape and spectacle.

It’s unsurprising that one of Harryhausen’s favourite paintings was Joseph Gandy’s mythic cityscape ‘Jupiter Pluvius’, a work considered, when it was painted in 1819, obscenely close to the low-brow entertainments of the magic-lantern show.

Harryhausen frequently cited these influences, acquiring Gandy’s painting and describing Doré as ‘the original art director for films’.

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