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Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) until February 22nd 2022.

Long time ago, in an imaginary kingdom that existed before CGI, Ray Harryhausen was king. Now, after this definitive phantasmagoria of the near legendary stop-motion animation pioneer’s work across half a century almost faced COVID induced extinction, it lives again.


Lovingly put together by the National Galleries of Scotland with The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation to honour the 100thanniversary of his birth in 1920, this comprehensive retrospective of Harryhausen’s transformation of widescreen cinematic fantasy runs riot throughout Modern Two’s entirety. As it follows its own evolutionary path, the exhibition tells an epic yarn of how a little boy was so enraptured by seeing Willis O’Brien’s giant ape brought to life in King Kong (1933) that he created his own miniature worlds. 


From being let loose by O’Brien on the far cosier creature feature, Mighty Joe Young (1949), through to his ever more spectacular and by now instantly recognisable oeuvre on his final work as animator, Clash of the Titans (1981), it is Harryhausen’s all too human heart that drives the exhibition.


This is the case from the models from Harryhausen’s slightly scary looking self-produced early fairy-tale based films onwards. Monsters and other animals held captive like trophies in glass cases will be familiar to generations weaned on the thrilling Bank holiday double features of Jason and The Argonauts (1963), The 7thVoyage of Sinbad (1958) and more. 


Multi-headed hydra and sword-wielding skeletons poised for battle are fused with combative personality, as are the dinosaurs from One Million Years B.C (1966). The magic stretches back even further to the mini spacecrafts from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and more dinosaurs in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).


Harryhausen’s cinematic sleight-of-hand is demystified by the display of glass plates and projections that resembles a multi-media installation. Film posters show off cast lists that include Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith hamming it up as they willingly play second fiddle to prehistoric beasts. 


Beyond such necessary excursions into memorabilia is the revelation of Harryhausen’s artistry. As well as being inspired by Willis O’Brien, he was heavily influenced by eighteenth century artist Gustave Dore, whose illustrations to the likes of The Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost perhaps give a clue to Harryhausen’s reimagining of classical myth. It is a sense of wonder that roars.

Scottish Art News, June 2021



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