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Indepth Arts News:

"Titans and Technologies - The Legacy of Space Art"
2000-06-06 until 2000-06-30
, , USA United States of America

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, for example).

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 its magnificence.

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 untamed wilderness.

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

Andrei Sokolov
In a Fiery Labyrinth
[courtesy Aerospace Education Center]

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