Reviewed by Steven H Silver
There is an old adage among authors to write what you know. Artist Alan Bean has taken this advice one step, and 240,000 miles, further. On November 19, 1969, Bean became the fourth man to step onto the Moon when he exited the lander Intrepid and placed his foot onto the Ocean of Storms during the Apollo 12 mission. Once there, the "magnificent desolation" spoke to him. Upon his return to Earth, Bean began to take art lessons. One of the results is his book, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account.
The majority of text of Apollo seems to have been written by Bean's collaborator, former Sky & Telescope editor Andrew Chaikin, whose previous work includes A Man on the Moon, an history of the space program through the Apollo missions. Chaikin has an almost fictive writing style, making his prose extremely readable. These long explanatory and historical passages are punctuated by short cpations of Alan Bean's own reminiscences, of both the Apollo program and his childhood. In these captions, Bean explains a little more about what he was attempting to do in each painting.
The paintings, of course, are the reason to purchase Apollo. Other astronauts, from the Mercury 7 to shuttle astronauts, have written memoirs of their travels. Bean is, to the best of my knowledge, the only American astronaut to attempt to capture his adventure in paint, thereby following in the footsteps of Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.
While Leonov's work attempts to capture the majesty of space, frequently from views he could never have seen, Bean concentrates on capturing the history of space exploration. His paintings depict specific events in the Apollo program: "Houston, We Have a Problem," depicting the explosion on the Apollo 13 mission, or "Sunrise Over Antares," which shows the sun rising over the Apollo 14 lunar lander. Not all of Bean's paintings are depictions of factual events. One of the most moving pictures in the book, a detail of which can be seen on the cover, is "Conrad, Gordon and Bean: The Fantasy." This painting is a portrait of the three Apollo 12 astronauts standing together on the moon.
A word needs to be said about Bean's painting technique. In addition to using brushes, Bean uses textures in his painting, which, unfortunately, aren't fully realized in the prints which make up Apollo. After Bean lays down the paint, he takes tools which he had with him on his lunar mission, and recreations of the soles of his space boots, and presses them into the wet paint. While many of these imprints show up in the prints (see "Houston, We Have a Problem"), their effect is muted by the medium.
Apollo: An Eyewitness Account is, quite possibly, the most personal memoir ever written by an astronaut. In addition to using words to describe an experience only shared by twelve men in the history of the world, Bean is able to use paintings, which capture the emotion and the memories of what he did better than any photographs ever could. While Chaikin's prose is well worth reading, the real joy is sitting down with a copy of Apollo, opening it at random, and enjoying Bean's artwork.
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