THE ART OF CHESLEY BONESTELL
by Chesley Bonestell, Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Chelsey Bonestell may very well be the dean of space art, just as Robert Heinlein holds a similar position in the field of science fiction authors. However, as Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III demonstrate, Bonestell's art was not relegated to the pages of the science fiction magazines and books. It graced the pages of astronomy magazines and texts and displays at museums. Although best known for his realistic spacescapes, Bonestell also turned his artistic attention to a variety of genres and applications.
Painting decades before humans managed to launch satellites or men into space, Bonestell managed to realistically capture the details of the alien worlds mankind would find once it broke free of Earth's gravity well. His depiction of Albategnius Crater in 1949 (p.140) almost appears to have been painted by someone who had seen photographs of the region. The panoramas he created in the 1950s for the Griffith Observatory (p.222-3) while fanciful, capture the wonder of viewing a Saturn-like planet from a nearby moon.
Bonestell's attention to detail is obvious in nearly all of his work, from his study of the Taj Mahal (p.170) which shows the intricate carving on the building to the almost photorealistic depiction of New York City following an atomic attack (p.176-7) which has an eerie similarity to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. These works, and numerous ones like them, indicate that although best known for his depictions of space, Bonestell was just as comfortable portraying the world around him.
Although not his primary area, Bonestell did work in science fiction, and his career intersected with Heinlein's when the men came together for the making of "Destination Moon" in 1950, which is discussed in illustrated detail in the book (p63-5, et al.). His sketches, studies and conceptions of spaceships would heavily influence the look of that movie and others which would follow, as well as the image the general public would have. Even today, when space shuttles fly and everyone knows what an Saturn booster looks like, the popular image of a spaceship is the streamlined cigar with wings Bonestell so often depicted.
What is surprising to those who only known Bonestell from his astronomical work, is the sheer amount of non-astronomical work, whether illustrations of the Golden Gate Bridge (p.118) for a book discussing its construction, or an idyllic seascape at Point San Pedro (p.104). Bonestell demonstrates over and over again that he could paint scenes which did not have a preponderance of black space for their background. He fully understood the use of color and shadow, as shown in his image of St. Peter's Basilica (p.101).
In some way, as becomes clear from his frequent portrayals of rocket systems and nuclear attacks, Bonestell was capturing the feel of the world in which he lived. Many of his paintings date to a period when the Cold War seemed likely to heat up. The Soviets and Americans were clearly racing for supremacy in space, and these concerns made their way into his work. There is propaganda in his paintings, but it is reasonably subtle, the space scenes marveling in the shear awe of the setting and the nuclear scenes basking in the horror of the attack.
The reproductions of Bonestell's work are clear and show much detail, as one has come to expect from the excellent art books Paper Tiger has been making available at reasonable prices. Miller and Durant's text explain the world in which Bonestell lived, although his paintings represent that world even better than the text does. The reader can learn a lot from just looking at the paintings and letting the text fill in the details that can't be gleaned from Bonestell's art.