Exploring Mars and Beyond

Continuing my look at the art of Chesley Bonestell as found in older volumes on space exploration—The Conquest of Space (1949) and Beyond Jupiter (1972)—I want to mention two other rare works I checked out recently thanks to the researches of a gentleman at the Library of Virginia. (In what may be an increasingly rare undertaking for librarians, he helped a patron look up printed books.)

The most impressive volume is The Exploration of Mars (1956) by Willy Ley. Whether depicting the magnificent winged spacecraft envisioned by Wernher von Braun, or the colorful and imaginative vistas of Mars, the illustrations are stunning. Throughout his career, Bonestell seems to have specialized in views of the red planet from its rocky moons, Phobos and Deimos (perhaps as often he studied the ringed planet Saturn as seen from its satellites).  The Martian landscapes are equally striking. I only regret that in these older books many of the plates are in black-and-white. I would love to see, for example, Bonestell’s study of astronauts viewing a fog shrouded polar valley from atop a Martian peak in all its original tints and hues.

Undoubtedly one of the advantages of modern publishing is the ubiquity of color reproductions. But the accompanying rise of so much computer generated art (while helpful from a technical and scientific point of view) is not, to my mind, as aesthetically pleasing as the traditional canvas. There is something about the “imperfection” of a painting that leaves greater scope for the imagination.  Of course, as much as I am a fan of Bonestell’s work, I admit to being disappointed in his panels for Ley’s Beyond the Solar System (1964). Not only are there relatively few illustrations, but of those selected, the pictures are lacking in variety and seem hastily done. Most are gloomy spacescapes of barren worlds circling dim red giants and white dwarf stars. The one exception in this series is his view of the sun Antares seen from a hypothetical (and inhabited) planet. Here is much more variety and interest, from the craggy peaks and clouds above to the alien pyramid temple and river below. Bonestell offers a wonderful artistic universe to ponder and enjoy.

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