Space Art - The Beauty of the Universe

December 1, 2015

"Space: the final frontier". I bet many of you are hearing William Shatner’s voice right now narrating the introductory sentence in Star Trek series. However, beyond the world of astronomy and popular science fiction, there are other people who went "where no man has gone before", bringing the artistic view on the wonders of the universe. Space Art and Astronomical Art are two important artistic genres that have emerged along with scientific discoveries that allowed a closer look into the secrets of the universe and although there are many Space Art practitioners in the world the genre still remains on the margins of contemporary art production. Perhaps the connection with science fiction and fantasy, traditionally seen as the lower genres had influenced the marginalization of Space Art, but the movement is not to be underestimated. By merging scientific discoveries with fine art expression, these artists are bridging the gap between technology and humanities, communicating the scientific ideas and achievements to the wider audience. In the following paragraphs, we will see some interesting Space Art works, discover the characteristics of the genre and tackle the question where is the place of Space Art in today’s art world.

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David A. Hardy - Jupiter from Europa

Early Space Art Examples

Although some Space Art enthusiasts are willing to trace the emergence of the genre to the prehistoric times and cave drawings we won’t travel that far through history. The discovery of the astronomical telescope in the 17th century allowed scientists to turn their attention to the celestial objects and to see them as something more than the distant luminous orbs. Galileo was among the first to sketch the surface of the Moon realistically, trying to capture the variety of landforms from craters to plains and mountains, and some argue that he is among the first Space Art practitioners. Anyway, the increasing interest in celestial bodies lead to the first experiments in Astronomical Art. By using the scientific information available, artists tried to recreate the landscapes of other worlds and present them to the public as accurately as possible. In the 18th century, Italian painter Donato Creti started working on the series of then-known five planets as they could have been seen through Galilean telescope. In the 19th century, there was an increasing number of artists who began reinterpreting the astronomical discoveries, from imaginative illustrations for Jules Verne's story Off on a Comet to James Carpenter’s and James Nasmyth’s photographs of the sculpted moon.

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William Hartmann - A Martian Landscape

Evolution of Space Art in the 20th Century

In the first few decades of the twentieth century, Space Art genre flourished and at that time some of the most important works were created which paved the way for generations of young space exploration artists. There are two important names that are now seen as the founding fathers of modern Space Art. The first one is French artist and astronomer Lucien Rudaux who became widely known for his astronomical illustrations that are even now praised as the most accurate representations of lunar landscapes before the probe photographs appeared. Along with Rudaux, Chesley Bonestell was among the most important space painters in the twentieth century. The education in architecture and long-time interest in astronomy have shaped Bonestell’s style which was both imaginative and realistic as possible, given the fact that he began his work prior to the space age. He was also one of the most popular astronomical artists in the 1940’s, the man who has popularized space travel and made a great contribution to the birth of astronautics. The beauty of Bonestell’s renderings was so compelling that it is often said that after the first lunar landing there were universal sighs of disappointment as the surface of the moon didn’t resemble one of his paintings.

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Chesley Bonestell - Saturn As Seen From Titan, 1952

Accuracy of Representation

Ever since the first artworks inspired by modern astronomy, it was one of the most important goals of space artists to depict their subjects with accuracy. Different than the artists who work in science fiction and fantasy and nourish imaginative approach to their style, Space Art creators find a base for their work in research and knowledge. These artists depend on the input and details that come from astronauts, astronomers, and scientific experts and that is why their artistry is in a constant struggle of being able to maintain originality and imagination while keeping the inspiration close to the scientific facts and reality. At the same time, it is one of the best qualities of Space and Astronomical Art genres. However, there have been some interesting examples of cosmonaut-artists who had the first-hand experience of the outer space and were able to create their works based on their personal visions. Perhaps the best-known astronaut-artist is Alan Bean the member of the Apollo 12 crew and the fourth person to walk on the moon. Other astronaut-artists who traveled to space and lived to paint it are two Russians Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Alexei Leonov.

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Alan Bean - Is Anyone Out There?, 2004

Leading Artists and Space Art Subgenres

Although realism and scientific inspiration are considered a given in the Space Art genre, there is practically no limit now to what can be categorized as Space and Astronomical Art. Astronomy and space exploration are certainly the common threads, but artists may choose to work in any medium and even step outside the past inclinations towards the scientific rendering. The Descriptive Realism in the works of Rudaux and Bonestell gave way to many new subgenres from loose Cosmic Impressionism to Cosmic Zoology (the depiction of extraterrestrials) to Hardware Art which focuses on the representation of space setting equipment. There have also been some great achievements in Space Art sculpture over the years, the most interesting being artworks designed for zero gravity display. Some of the most notable Space Art artists who work today are David A. Hardy, Don Dixon, Don Davis and William Kenneth Hartmann among many other prominent names. It is also an interesting thing that many of Space Art practitioners don’t come from the fine art background but from various scientific disciplines.

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Alexei Leonov - The First Spacewalk

International Association of Astronomical Artists and the Future of Space Art

Back in 1982, a group of artists fascinated by space who were exploring the beauties of the universe in fine art founded the International Association of Astronomical Artists. The IAAA is currently the leading and the most important organization in the field, gathering more than 130 artists from over twenty countries. IAAA supports artists regardless of their medium, whether its photography, traditional painting or digital art, providing a platform for international collaboration and promoting education about Astronomic Art. The Space Art genre has also been supported by the NASA fine arts program with an ongoing mission of bringing the artists who work in fine arts to document their space programs. Over the years, many works of prominent Space Art artists have appeared in various scientific, popular magazines and TV documentaries like Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. More than half a century after the first man in space, the secrets of the universe still remain hidden from the humanity. Space Art has shown in the past how science and art can coexist together, bringing the astronomic discoveries closer to the wider audience. More importantly it has inspired scientists to go further in their endeavors and truly appreciate the beauty of the universe. Between science and imagination, Space Art is one of the most exciting young disciplines and without a doubt we can expect its golden years in the future, especially now in our digital age.

Featured images: Lucien Rudaux - Rendering of Jupiter; Don Davis - Jet Propulsion Laboratory commission depicting Voyager outer planet encounters. All images used for illustrative purposes.