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Chesley Bonestell and his vision of the future

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Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future
directed by Douglass M. Stewart Jr.
2018, 96 minutes

Most people with even a fleeting familiarity of the early Space Age are familiar with the work of artist Chesley Bonestell, even if they don’t recognize the name. Long before the launch of Sputnik and Explorer 1, let alone the flights of Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn or the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Bonestell painted dramatic landscapes of the Moon and other worlds in our solar system, as well as the rockets and spacecraft that would take people to them. His artwork, along with the words of Willy Ley and the visions of Wernher von Braun, televised by Walt Disney, would shape American perceptions of space at the dawn of the Space Age.

The documentary Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future, a biography of Bonestell, was released in 2018, but it was largely consigned to the film festival circuit or an occasional screening at a space conference. In-person film festivals and conferences are hard to come by these days, but fortunately the movie is now available for free for Amazon Prime subscribers. It’s worth the hour and a half to learn more about the man and his art.

The actual lacked the jagged mountains that were one of his trademarks. (Bonestell, in archival footage, remarked that the actual appearance of the Moon was “a great disappointment” to him.)

While Bonestell is known now for his space artwork, that wasn’t what he was known for during much of his life. Born in San Francisco in 1888, he was interested in art from an early age, including paintings of Saturn inspired by viewing the planet at the Lick Observatory in 1905. However, he went on to study architecture, helping in the design of buildings while working in San Francisco, London, and New York. That included work on the Chrysler Building in Manhattan and the Golden Gate Bridge; drawings of the latter were in storage at the bridge’s headquarters building for decades until rediscovered by another designer.

Bonestell’s career then turned to the stars—Hollywood, that is. He worked as a special effects matte painter on movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Citizen Kane. However, in his spare time began working on the space paintings that would make him famous, starting with a set of landscapes on the moons of Saturn published to great acclaim in Life magazine in 1944. His visions of space, and our future of space, soon were in high demand for magazines, books, and movies.

The movie includes interviews with a wide range of people, including artists and engineers inspired by Bonestell to pursue their own artwork or to make the visions in Bonestell’s pieces become reality. That reality turned out a little different from his art, from the design of the rockets to a lunar landscape that lacked the jagged mountains that were one of his trademarks. (Bonestell, in archival footage, remarked that the actual appearance of the Moon was “a great disappointment” to him.)

The film never really explains why Bonestell, after a long career in architecture and movies, made the shift to painting distant worlds and rocketships. The seed for doing so was planted in that trip to Lick Observatory decades earlier, but why it took so long to germinate, and why it finally did after decades drawing buildings and bridges, and painting landscapes for film sets, is less clear. Fortunately, it did, and Bonestell continued to paint until his death in 1986.

Neither the future nor the solar system turned out quite like what Bonestell depicted, but no prognosticator is 100% accurate. His art did offer a realistic vision of what space exploration could be like just as spaceflight was at the cusp of becoming reality—and, in the process, helping enable that reality in a small way.

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