The first instance of a space discovery affecting art was likely 1608’s Somnium, a novel by astronomer Johannes Kepler about a trip to the moon following a pathway revealed by a demon. Ron Miller includes the curious story in The Art of Space, published this October by Zenith Press, which chronicles the history of artists interpreting the frontier beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Kepler didn’t get an illustrator for his book, but later authors like Jules Verne with From the Earth to the Moon (1865), for which he enlisted scientific selenographers to create a map, helped draw a bridge between science and fiction in art. Miller, a talented space art illustrator himself, breaks down the book into sections like “Planets & Moons” and “Space Colonies & Cities” to thoroughly trace space art from 19th-century illustration to contemporary computer graphics. Throughout, he gives space art a historic foundation that shows how its impact goes beyond visual fantasy. The work of Chesley Bonestell between World War II and 1960, for instance, shaped engineers’ ideas for spacecraft design. But above all, space art is about awe at the possibilities beyond our planet. Miller writes:
Space artists seek to serve the same functions as their artistic ancestors, the painters of the Hudson River School — namely, to inspire a sense of wonder about the universe. There is an educational side to this art form, but, in my opinion, delineating bald scientific facts is not the main purpose of space art — any more than Moran and Bierstadt were trying to teach their audiences geology.
Some of the art in the 350 images in the book can verge on sci-fi kitsch, and it could have benefited from more full-page reproductions in the generously sized publication. It’s also missing more conceptual artists that are arguably practicing different types of space art, like Tom Sachs or Trevor Paglen. However, The Art of Space is a worthy read for Miller’s writing on the history of the visual merger of science and art. He also gives credit to the often overlooked science fiction illustrators who were frequently ahead of more “serious” science art. “Interestingly, science-fiction magazines — the first of which was published in the late 1920s — were far ahead of more ‘respectable’ journals in publishing astronomical art,” he writes.
Now, space art is being used to convey scientific ideas about exoplanets. Lynette Cook, one of the few women working in space art, is a leader in the studying and rendering of incredibly distant, potentially Earth-like planets. She explains, with words that would likely resonate with Kepler in the 17th century, that her art is a “way of wondering about and exploring in a tangible way the questions of human existence and our place within the cosmos.”
The Art of Space by Ron Miller is available from Zenith Press and on Amazon.
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