Culture infuses both art and science. When I think of the many Soviet-era
space paintings I have seen, both in the US and in Soviet galleries, I
remember fuzzily painted groups of indistinguishable figures striding toward
the unknown. American astronomical and science fiction art of that time
usually featured traditional lone figures against immense landscapes.
In the West, our century broke the close link between art and science, as
prevailing currents flowed away from external nature to internal feelings -- a big
factor, I believe, in C. P. Snow's famous two cultures split. Crudely put,
scientists studied nature, artists studied themselves. Artists also reveled in the
modernist shattering of consensus reality, rendering experience through
abstraction, surrealism and stress on the non-natural ways of seeing (cubism,
Space art rebuilds the bridge between these two schools, celebrating nature
on the broadest canvas.
Space, symbol and the real
In US sf and space art, realism rules. This is part of the hard sf aesthetic, the
rocks & balls school as some Russian painters have described it. The
USSR's state artists preferred symbolism, with European sf artists often falling
somewhere in between these poles. Such moody, symbolic work usually
appeared in US sf only in magazine illustrations like those of Galaxy
magazine, to portray social sf. (Marx spoke of scientific socialism, but the
Soviet tradition, even when literal in appearance, invoked social goals, not
scientific ones.) Reality was the stuff of Astounding.
Referring to this moody school as symbolic-fantastic, painter Andrei Sokolov
said, The theory of relativity might yield images that could be shown only in
emotional, artistic form. It could be a symbol, a fantasy, a dream. Contrast this
with attempts to show the relativistic Doppler effect, which Fred Pohl called the
starbow as it would be observed from a starship.
Portraits of courageous pioneers of space were sanctioned by the Soviet
space program, so realistic work did have a place.
William Hartmann, a space scientist at the University of Arizona who has a
parallel career as a painter, recalled to me how he had depicted pedestal
formations on comets, setting up and painting at a specialist comet meeting.
Several astrophysicists, including David Brin, had theorized that rocks on the
surface would shield the snow and ice beneath them, so that the rest of the
landscape evaporated during close passage to the sun. The comet would
then literally grow toadstool-like formations. Hartmann drew this, and soon
enough, the effect proliferated into NASA brochures. (Yet when the prediction
was stated in a paper to a journal, it was rejected. Now it is the conventional
wisdom, based finally on direct observations.)
Advice from cosmonauts
Andrei Sokolov is an oddity in Russian space art, a realistic worker who had
direct access to astronauts. He could remark from inference, Landscapes
seen from an airplane are vague and colorless, because we observe them
from inside the atmosphere with the light scattered from all around.
Cosmonauts are not impeded by the scattered light; they see the Earth in all
He had an immense advantage. Necessarily, Americans did not, since even
today no professional artist has flown in space -- though several astronauts
have turned to art later. So Americans concentrated on photographs. Soviet
astronauts studied Earth with color-sample atlases and color-measuring
viewers, confirming that perceived colors are remarkably more vivid than views
from aircraft. Our eyes discern details twenty times finer than a typical camera
and two hundred times better than a TV image. We also have far more subtle
color perception. For the first time, an artist with the Soviet era readings could
compare nighttime clouds lit by city lights, by lightning, and by moonlight.
Peculiarities emerged, specific to space art: no up or down, no atmospheric
perspective, sharp contrasts of light and dark, arriving suddenly.
Sokolov had cosmonauts compare his sketch (on a light cloth that could be
rolled and folded) with the real scene as it passed below, writing comments on
the sketch about color, form and lighting. (Alexei Leonov, the first space
walker, has done primarily realistic paintings and sketches, using his own
experience and Sokolov's data.) Using frequent interviews with cosmonauts,
he gave this vivid description:
At the terminator, when valleys sink into darkness and a chain of snowy
mountains is shining in the background. Late in the evening, just beyond the
terminator, the very high mountains glow red-orange, like live coals....
Mountaintops cleave the clouds, leaving a wake like that of a ship. Tropical
thunderheads, lit by lightning flashes at night, recall the blooming buds of
white roses. ... The shining constellations of cities at night, enmeshed by a
glittering web of highways is also very lovely. One's heart fills with pride at our
accomplishments when one recognizes from orbit artificial seas and water
basins, and cultivated fields, particularly in virgin lands.
In this passage we see how much of Soviet society retained the pride common
in 19th-century America about the domesticating hand of humanity upon the
Not all decisions on either side of the cultural divide came from aesthetic
ideas. The Soviet Artists' Union was ordered from above to produce art
heralding the great space achievements, so there was work to be had.
Landscape painters migrated in, symbolists found ready employment (Most of
it looks like Russian music sounds American Jon Lomberg remarked to me.)
Cosmonaut portraits were in great demand for offices, regional galleries, public
buildings. Even the most highly regarded space artists cared little for the
facts of their subject. On a rare junket to the west, at Voyager's Neptune
encounter, as a body they skipped the Jet Propulsion Laboratory tour
arranged for them to go to Disneyland instead! (Sokolov apologized for them.) - Gregory Benford
In a Fiery Labyrinth
[courtesy Aerospace Education Center]