You will sometimes hear people argue about the most important events in human history — the discovery of fire, the wheel or the printing press, the first cave paintings, or, in a longer view, the first deliberate cultivation of plants or the rise of cro-magnons and the apparent extinction of the neanderthals.
But, as a friend of mine, paleo artist Bob Walters, pointed out, and on reflection I think I have to agree, if you truly take the long view, you could make a case that there are basically three really important events in the entire three and a half billion year history of life itself on this planet:
- Life begins.
- Life emerges from the sea and establishes itself on land.
- Life leaves the surface of this planet and travels to another celestial body.
Some of us alive today were witness to that third event.
On July 16, 1969, 40 years ago today, three human beings left the surface of the Earth to travel 238,897 miles (384,467 km) to the moon. On July 20th, two of them descended to its surface, and all three then returned to this planet.
I was in my girlfriend’s den, watching the Apollo 11 mission with her and her younger brother on a small, round cornered television screen in black and white. I knew it was very cool, and pretty important. I didn’t realize how important. I don’t think a lot of people, even those who saw it, realize still just how important it was.
Some may argue that space exploration is a wasteful extravagance and unimportant to day to day life on Earth, and I’m sure those same arguments could be made that life in the primordial oceans was doing just fine without bothering to crawl up on the land, thank you very much, and human beings were fine living in Africa, Europe and Asia without bothering with the American continents.
I’m not so much bringing this up to argue the case (there are plenty of political or even science blogs where that can be argued ad infinitum), but rather to point out how important I personally think this event was, how much I am in awe of it, and how astonished I am that it occurred in my lifetime.
Which brings us, as always on Lines and Colors, to art.
There have been many landscape artists throughout the history of art, whether they were called that or not (see my post on Giovanni Bellini, for example), but we now have a artist who is the only one to paint the landscape of another world from first-hand experience.
Alan Bean was an astronaut on the Apollo 12 mission, launched four months after the landmark Apollo 11 mission, and was the fourth human to step foot on the moon.
Bean retired from NASA in 1981 and devoted himself full time to painting. He had been interested in painting, and taking art classes, since his days as a test pilot, and studied by making copies of paintings by Cezanne and Degas.
While he obviously couldn’t paint “on location” on the moon (en plein vacuum?), he is the only painter who can paint it from the experience of seeing it with his own eyes, and he has done so in an extensive series of paintings.
Some of them are very direct and observational. In others, like most artists, he is interpretive, and beings his own sensibilities to the subject. In particular he follows his desire to bring color to the moon, which seemed to him at the time visually richer than photographs could convey; the latter usually showing grey and black vistas of mountains, craters and dust, broken only by the color of the astronauts themselves and in particular the bright foil skin of the landing module.
In some of Bean’s interpretations, the lunar surface itself is aglow with impressionistic colors. He also uses heavy surface textures in many of his paintings, particularly in images of his fellow astronauts, and often revisits the same theme with varying degrees of color and texture.
His web site contains a series of galleries. Site navigation is horrible, but if you click around long enough you’ll eventually find your way through them. Be sure to click on the image previews, and then on “Large image” to see the textural surface of the paintings.
While Bean may not have made it into the National Gallery of Art, his paintings are on display at another part of the Smithsonian, in the National Air and Space Museum. The show Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist On Another World opens today and runs to January 13, 2010.
Addendum: there are two new books out with Bean’s artwork: Alan Bean: Painting Apollo and Apollo: An Eyewitness Account By Astronaut/Explorer Artist/Moonwalker Alan Bean.