Painting Space

Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III, The Art of Chesley Bonestell, PaperTiger, 2001

Chesley Bonestell was indisputably the master of his domain, space art. That is, he was the one name people thought of when you thought of astronomical art and the illustrating of future space flight. His work was simply beautiful and conveyed the majesty of space. This book is both a large collection of his art and a full biography of his life and career. Though he is remembered most for his space art, he had a varied career that began in architectural design and illustration. He did matte-work on a fair number of films. A few may know of his connection to certain science fiction films, but he also provided images of mansions and famous buildings for a fair number of films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Fountainhead. Toward the end of his life he also did a comprehensive history of Spanish missions in the region of California.
 
The book does a fine job of documenting Bonestell’s importance in generating interest in going into space in the 1950s by a campaign of popularising the work of rocket designers, notably Werner von Braun. He was a stickler for accuracy in these matters and was infamous in asking many questions and giving thoughtful criticism. Bonestell generally maintained high standards in his astronomical work, but even he fell prey to the occasional error of judgment. Famously, his images of the moon had the landscape far too craggy than it turned out to be. The authors discuss the problem fully and note that a famous astronomical illustrator Rudaux had worked out the truth decades before Surveyor and Apollo got there.
 
A careful appreciation of the edge of the Moon against space showed the landscape was gently rolling. The impression of cragginess resulted from shadows at low-sun angles along the terminator. Bonestell may have been aware of this, but retained the cragginess as a matter of convention from prior science art. It ‘seemed’ right for the moon to look that way and made it a more attractive target for exploration; volcanic peaks having a rugged appeal that rolling hills do not.
 
Bonestell also retained canals in his images of Mars long after expert opinion had determined their illusory character. They also had romantic appeal. He also had volcanic features on Martian moons where he had to certainly be aware they were impossible, simply because they form a lovely frame to the disc of Mars. Aesthetic preferences crept in often, but even so, he did have standards and was often critical of the lower scientific accuracy of most, but not all, space artists that sprang up in his shadow.
 
There is little doubt this is the definitive book on Bonestell, the one that will stand the test of time as having everything there is to know about him, presenting his work in the finest way, and giving the fullest and most insightful commentary about his art. It is also a simply gorgeous art gallery, having what appears to be over three hundred of his works on display. Full praise to everybody involved in this masterpiece. - Martin S. Kottmeyer, from Magonia Supplement 51, June 2004.


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