Exploring the Solar System through Space Art

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This story is just one example of the importance of astronomical art. Scientists publish their work in peer-reviewed journals, but astronomical realist painters translate the results to show what distant worlds would look like if we could be there.

Here is another example: in 1949, Bonestell illustrated a book that changed the world, Space conquest, with text by science popularizer Willy Ley. The paintings in the book included new landscapes on various planets, created based on consultations with scientists during the preparation of the book. Its cover showed a sleek silver rocket and astronauts on the Moon. (As astronomer artist and historian Ron Miller said, “This is how rockets were meant to look!”) Many engineers and scientists who sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon were inspired by this book as a teenager. The great science fiction author Jules Verne is often quoted as having written: “What a man can imagine, other men can achieve”. Bonestell’s paintings showed the dream and Apollo engineers made it a reality.

Ludek Pesek (1919-1999) was another pioneer of astronomical art. His work is widely known in Europe. The Czech artist was vacationing in Switzerland in 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, prompting him to stay in Switzerland for the rest of his life. His paintings, although mostly realistic, sometimes included touches of fantasy. I was lucky enough to visit Pesek and his wife in Switzerland, and at their home I noticed a view from a lunar hill showing a large boulder that had rolled towards the viewer, leaving a visible trail behind it – but the rock seemed to have been stopped in the foreground by a small flower.

The artistic movement launched by Rudaux, Bonestell and Pesek could be called astronomical realism. Each painting (and this includes landscape paintings, since Earth is also a planet) challenges the artist to depict reality – not as it is expected or as the artists would like it to be, but as it actually exists.

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