The Art of Chesley Bonestell
by Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III, with Foreword by Arthur C. Clarke
(Paper Tiger, $49.95, 256 pages, hardback; published 1 May 2001.)
If I could pass one edict to be obeyed to the letter by the book publishing community, it would state that there be at least one collection of the paintings and illustrations of Chesley Bonestell in print and available for purchase at all times. Like the stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Bonestell's vividly realistic spacescapes have been so vital to the development of science-fiction creativity that they must be easily accessible for us to enjoy and for aspiring artists to learn from at all times. But, unlike the writings of the aforementioned authors, many of which grew archaic over the years in style if not in content, the works of this mid-twentieth-century master remain, for the most part, reflective of our understanding of the cosmos today. But, until now, largely unavailable for local viewing, unless you happened to be lucky enough to live in a town whose library owned a copy of Ron Miller's and Frederick C. Durant III's out-of-print and highly collectable volume of Bonestell's space art, Worlds Beyond, published in 1983.
But never fear! Along come Miller and Durant again, this time with The Art of Chesley Bonestell, and it is a much more comprehensive collection than their first book. And greater in scope than the standard coffee table art book, too. For one thing, it contains a 103-page biography that is liberally supported by photographs of Bonestell, his family and his environs, along with several of his seminal sketches and illustrations. Printed on gray vellum-simulated semi-gloss, the linear biographical text begins by highlighting the artist's childhood, spent in San Francisco in the 1890s. It follows with events pertinent to the progress of Bonestell's career, first as a talented draftsman and architect with an almost Gump-like serendipitous attraction to the creation of significant structures ("Whether you are crossing the Golden Gate Bridge or admiring the Chrysler Building..."), but with inspired contributions to each. Then through his "second life" as one of the most sought-after matte artists in Hollywood (The Magnificent Ambersons, Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, War of the Worlds, many others). And finally with the career we already realize was the one he was meant to have all along -- that of the most respected painter of space art in the history of the genre. Although I have a minor issue with certain omissions from the text, which I shall get into later, Miller and Durant have given us a welcome understanding of how Bonestell was able to combine his life-long love of astronomy with his draftsman's perspective and matte painter's technique.
But the real value of this book lies in the crisp accuracy of its reproductions and its attention to detail.
One hundred and seventy-nine of Bonestell's paintings and drawings have been exquisitely assembled in a 138-page "Gallery" section, presented on high-quality, traditional white semi-gloss. Bonestell admirers will delight in poring over Paper Tiger's sharp presentation of classic works such as "The Surface of Mercury", "Jupiter as Seen from Europa", "The Sun Seen from Pluto" and the easily identifiable "Saturn as Seen from Mimas", all from The Conquest of Space, his 1949 collaboration with Willy Ley (many of the paintings for which were originally done for his series for Life magazine). Examples of his Collier's magazine series from the 1950s are featured as well, his "New York after an atomic bomb has been dropped on it" being one of the most impressive of the lot. And we are treated to his lesser-known astronomy-related work from the 1960s and beyond, including a striking interpretation of a nova as it melts the mountains of a hypothetical planet, first published in a 1964 collection. The famous Bonestell panoramas and matte paintings are included also, as are certain rarely seen non-genre works, such as his seascape "Bird Rock" (1970) and his oil on board of "Selene and Endymion" (1974). Comprehensive? Indeed.
We learn that subsequent scientific knowledge gleaned from the Apollo missions and late-20th-century advances in telescopic technology (such as Hubble) have proven certain of Bonestell's spacescapes to be slightly inaccurate. Do we care? Not one bit! Bonestell's space art was always speculative; he would choose to depict a bolder scene rather than a scientifically accurate one, knowingly or not. (His Doré-esque Lunar mountains were a perfect example.) We just wanted to believe his paintings were real. After all, he made it all so easy for us.
The authors are familiar with the world of astronautics and science fiction art in general and Bonestell in particular. Miller is a noted illustrator in his own right, having created artwork for many sf and fantasy magazines and book jackets, one of which earned him a Hugo nomination. An authority on early spaceflight, he enjoyed an earlier career as art director for the Albert Einstein Planetarium of the National Air and Space Museum. His original paintings can be found in the collections of The Smithsonian Institution and Moscow's Pushkin Museum. Durant was the Director of Engineering at the US Naval Air Rocket Test Station in Dover, New Jersey, before heading the Astronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
Working on their first Bonestell book afforded the authors the opportunity to become personally acquainted with the artist. Their extensive familiarity with the subject, along with his widow's generosity in sharing pertinent documents and recollections of her husband's life, lends The Art of Chesley Bonestell credibility and a sense of affection that would otherwise have been difficult to attain, since Bonestell has been deceased for fifteen years.
My only issue with the text may stem from this perceived affection, and indeed might be classified as just a nit-pick. While the authors probably intended to limit the biography to incidents directly relevant to Bonestell's career development, they raise important questions about his personal life that are left unanswered. This happens in several places throughout the narrative. For example, they write, "Bonestell grew restless, and in 1918 he divorced [his first wife], resigned from [a prominent architectural firm's] employ and left California to return to New York..." No further explanation is given as to why Bonestell apparently abandoned his wife, and "Bonestell grew restless" is certainly not adequate. A paragraph providing a sufficient elucidation would have gone directly toward understanding the personality of the artist, although it might not have placed him in a sympathetic light. A more objective writer probably would have been willing to insert it. Had the authors not wanted to delve into the murky waters of Bonestell's domestic life, they should have found a way to avoid taking us in ankle-deep to begin with.
But this has no effect on the importance or the beauty of this book. Bonestell's perspective, technique and use of striking, vividly realistic colour in his spacescapes and matte art still influences the work of such contemporary masters as Michael Whelan, Bob Eggleton and Chris Moore. His body of work remains as fresh and alive today as it was when it was first created decades ago. And his importance to the history and evolution of science-fiction art cannot be measured.
The Art of Chesley Bonestell is a diamond in the treasure chest of Paper Tiger fantasy art books. It is a must-buy for anyone possessing even a passing interest in astronomy, science fiction or fantasy art of any type. It is a book for dreamers of all ages. And the brilliance of the work it displays will be an inspiration to those whose talent nudges them to go beyond their dreams.
This book deserves to be available for purchase from bookstores everywhere in perpetuity. My edict has taken a giant leap toward realization.
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© Randy M Dannenfelser 5 May 2001