Art's Place in Space

By , Mary Cowen is a freelance writer specializing in nature writing.

IN THE STREAM OF STARS: THE SOVIET/AMERICAN SPACE ART BOOK. Edited by William K. Hartmann, Andrei Sokolov, Ron Miller, Vitaly Myagkov with a historical perspective by Ray Bradbury, Workman, 183 pp., $19.95 (paper)

IN this era of magnificent photographic and video capability, why would anyone bother to paint pictures of space exploration? Take a look at ``In the Stream of Stars: The Soviet/American Space Art Book'' for some artists' answers.

They say artists can convey the emotion, the sensation, even a philosophical viewpoint, along with the facts. Alexei Leonov of the Soviet Union took a sketchbook and colored pencils on his long-duration orbital flight and American Alan Bean wrestled with the problems of rendering how the moon's surface looked and how he felt when he was there. This book shows what they came up with. And they tell how they went about it and the problems they had to solve.

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Soviet artist Andrei Sokolov explains why an artist should be there: ``A human eye can discern details twenty times better than a typical camera and two hundred times better than a typical TV transmission, to say nothing of our human advantage in subtle perception of color.''

The Soviets have made special studies of the appearance of color in space and details of Earth as seen from space by the human eye. Earthbound Sokolov sent some of his sketches into space with cosmonauts so that they could make corrective notes on the spot, as it were. An example is in the book (see illustration at left).

There is plenty of historical precedent for artists to accompany scientific explorations. Ron Miller, in his historical essay, points out the essential role artists have played in the development of space exploration since the time of Galileo. Miller provides illustrations of how artists have influenced scientific thought just as scientists have influenced artistic expression.

Sokolov remarks that ``As we venture beyond the Earth, we are forced to think in a new way.... Humankind's ordinary notions have been thrown into disarray by our journeys into space.'' This puts the artist in the role of visionary, and various visionary paintings appear in the book. It is interesting to follow the differing approaches of the American and Soviet artists, the result of different traditions and ease or lack of access to technical information and firsthand experience.

To overcome some of the technical handicaps, the International Association of Astronomical Artists and the USSR Union of Artists' Committee on Science and the Cosmos have sponsored workshops in Hawaii, Utah, California, the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, Iceland, Moscow, and at a site outside Moscow. Here, the artists can study planetary features they might not otherwise be able to see, consult with scientists and engineers in the space programs, and compare notes with one another.

After several years of this activity, the artists mounted an exhibition in Moscow in conjunction with the arrival of Phobos 2 at Mars. The exhibition later moved to Pasadena, Calif., to coincide with the Voyager 2 fly-by of Neptune. It is the basis for the book.

William K. Hartmann says in one of his essays that the artists saw their opportunities to work together as a model for international collaboration, that they were celebrating space exploration as ``an adventure to be shared by all humanity.''

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury says in the introduction that we are on a ``holy mission'' in search of ourselves. ``Space travel,'' he writes, ``is the religious endeavor of humankind to comprehend the mystery, box the miracle, understand the immense Why of life here and somewhere so far off we will never meet its Mother Ship.''

Whatever the reasons for exploring space beyond Earth, this book makes a good case for recording the effort by eye and hand.

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