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Thursday 22 August 2019

Space travel

More things in heaven and earth

The moon has always been a source of wonder for artists and scientists. But have we demystified it by getting closer and closer?

By Sophie Haigney

The moon used to be our muse. It was both a god and a goddess; a powerful healer and source of fertility; the cause of great evil or madness; a nightlight for lovers. The celestial body was, for millennia, a blank page for the human imagination – a distant white light on which to project our fears, desires and dreams.

It is also, of course, the star of this summer. The 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar flight has inspired a spate of films, documentaries and written tributes. There are also several exhibitions dedicated more generally to the cultural relationship between man and the moon. In New York, a show focusing on moon photography opened at the Metropolitan Museum last month; in San Francisco, also in July, the Museum of Modern Art opened a design-oriented exhibition; while in London an exhibition was staged at the National Maritime Museum simply entitled The Moon.

Cadmium-Vermillion Eclipse, by El Anatsui

Appropriately, all of these exhibitions exist at the intersection of art and science – which were not such separate disciplines even up to a century ago. They trace both technological and cultural developments in relation to outer space.

The Moon in London stretches back the farthest chronologically, and therefore helps us to look at it through pre-modern eyes, before it was the purview of secular science or even known to be a physical object. Indeed, the best part of this exhibition is its earliest part, which features depictions of the moon dating to 664 BC in Ancient Egypt. The moon in antiquity was often colourfully personified: the Egyptian moon god Iah lost five days of moonlight in a dice game to the god Thoth, causing five days to be added to the solar calendar.

In Ancient Greece, the moon was female, associated with the goddesses Diana and Selene, the latter of whom, in mythology, puts her mortal lover Endymion to eternal sleep and visits him every night. (She is depicted in a wonderful neoclassical drawing, a woman lazing on a crescent moon, semi-transparent above her sleeping lover.) The moon in all these depictions is at once remote and proximate, a nearly-but-not-quite human figure that is almost within reach.

Endymion and Selene, by Victor Florence Pollet

This interplay between closeness and distance continues in Romantic paintings – in particular moonlit scenes of night from the 18th and 19th Centuries – and in one Japanese drawing from 1789, on display in the London show, which depicts a moon-viewing party. As people contemplated the moon, they were often engaged in a scientific pursuit of some sort: they may have been marking time, attempting navigation or cartography, tracking the tides, or even engaged in early medicine. (A wonderful crescent moon that once hung over an apothecary’s shop is also on display.) But this science was mingled with spiritual, contemplative, and artistic elements. Even early astronomers’ maps took liberties: one detailed drawing includes the face of a woman concealed within the folds of the moon’s bright surface.

‘I want! I want!’, an engraving by William Blake

The one powerful engine of these artistic depictions, leading up the end of the 19th Century, is a sense of yearning. Humanity’s relationship with the moon could be summed up by an engraving in a series for children, by William Blake, first published in 1793 and titled ‘I want! I want!’ A tiny figure is climbing a makeshift ladder to the moon, still some distance from the top. Perhaps this is an essential element of the moon-as-artistic-muse that combines both the distance and the desire and turns it into an irresistible, unbridgeable gap of space that is filled by human want.

Then man began to map the moon. The field of selenography, or attempts to study and depict the moon’s geography, was really launched by Galileo Galilei’s Starry Messenger in 1610; these were the first mass-published drawings of the moon seen through a telescope. Astronomers attempted to sketch craters and understand the qualities of its surface, coming to understand it as a celestial body for the first time. Drawings became increasingly exact; and when photography was first developed, astronomers quickly saw its potential.

The Metropolitan Museum show charts man’s first attempts to catch the moon on camera and includes the first daguerreotypes of the moon, which look like slivers of fingernails held up to mirrors. There are early black-and-white photos, illuminating the moon’s craters for the first time and then in increasing detail. Perhaps most charming of all are the miniature photographs of the moon that were peddled in the 1860s like decks of cards; people could buy and own a small image of the moon on the street for the first time. Similarly, “Man in the Moon” postcards became a fad in the early 1900s as photography became more accessible: people posing against cutouts of a smiling crescent moon and cartoonish stars. The moon, it seems, was getting closer to home.

The centrepiece of the exhibition in New York is a complete lunar atlas compiled by Maurice Loewy and Pierre Puiseux, two Parisian astronomers. Over 14 years, they took more than 6,000 dry-plate glass negatives, capturing the moon in every one of its phases. They published their results in Photographic Atlas of the Moon in 12 volumes in 1903. The book’s images show the moon up close from every imaginable angle: the pockmarks of the lunar face, the gentle curve of its rotation, the gradations of white and grey on its surface. This book, and this moment, marked a sharp departure in cultural depictions of the moon. There is still some yearning in Loewy and Puiseux’s Atlas photographs, but there is also a sense of methodological conquest: the moon, in its iterations, has been captured and catalogued, caught and conquered on camera by mankind.

A page from Maurice Loewy and Pierre Puiseux’s Photographic Atlas of the Moon

Perhaps the most iconic photo of the moon was taken when Apollo 11 landed there: the astronaut’s footprint in sand. In a way, the landing marked the end of the moon as an unknowable mystery. No longer could we pretend that there were women embedded in its face, or that it was a distant deity, because we had been there and seen the – by comparison – more prosaic reality for ourselves.

This may be why cultural depictions of the moon after 1969 have centred on the moon in relationship to the earth rather than as its own unknowable entity. The moon has indeed become tangled in the web of geopolitics, gender dynamics and corporate greed on earth. For all their talk of mankind, the first astronauts who landed on the moon planted an American flag – evidence of victory in one of the battles of the Cold War victory. Since then, the moon has been the object of desire by nation-states and billionaires alike, seeking to own or tame it.

Of course, there are artists who still treat the moon as a mysterious, contemplative subject; contemporary artist Katie Paterson, whose work is featured in the National Maritime show, treats space and the cosmos with a mix of reverence, joy and conceptual experimentation. But the majority of the post-Apollo art, at least in the exhibitions in London and New York, is explicitly or implicitly oriented toward earthly politics.

Bambuit, from the series The Afronauts, by Cristina de Middel

This has created some powerful work: notably Cristina de Middel’s series of ‘Afronauts’ photographs inspired by Zambia’s doomed and oddball space program, established in the wake of the country’s independence. Aleksandra Mir staged a 1999 performance called ‘First Woman On The Moon’, a faux lunar landing on a beach in the Netherlands on live television and a reminder, perhaps, that no woman ever has ever walked on the moon. A photograph from 1971 shows Brooklyn graffiti in a rubble-strewn parking lot proclaiming “The Moon Belongs To The People”, a utopian sentiment that the Space Race and subsequent space exploration have not borne out.

There is a certain urgency to this political lunar art: the moon is again being politicised, though in different and perhaps more alarming ways. These days, the moon is the fantasy-territory of Silicon Valley egomaniacs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos; the latter famously commented that he couldn’t think of anything to do with his money other than fund space travel. The moon is also seen as a potential site for harvesting natural resources, and even a place where some segments of the human race might go should our own planet become uninhabitable.

Everyone’s Moon 2015-11-04 14-22-59, by Penelope Umbrico

William Anders’ famous photograph ‘Earthrise’ – taken from the window of Apollo 8 of earth’s blue marble surface by the retired NASA astronaut – is believed to be the most widely reproduced photograph in history. Anders said after the space flight: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth.”

At the height of the Cold War, this was a hopeful sentiment and the photo was shared as a symbol of earthly unity. But the quote and the photo now read more ominously, and its beauty is more elegiac. The wide reproduction of ‘Earthrise’ is also evidence, perhaps, of our increasingly earth-centric gaze. Though we were long obsessed with reaching the moon and stepping beyond our earthly concerns, once we reached it we became more mired than ever in matters of the earth.

Images by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and the National Maritime Museum, and NASA Ames Research Center History Archives 

Further reading

– The most charming and inventive depictions of the moon almost always come in books for children but suitable for adults, such as The Invention of Hugo Cabreta fantastic illustrated novel by Brian Selznick, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Roverandom.

– For a dose of pure 1960s sci-fi spectacle, watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s film classic which preceded the moon landing by only a year.

– There has been a spate of recent historical documentaries around the subject of the moon landing; among them, the critically acclaimed Apollo 11, which draws mostly from primary-source material and provides a microscopically close look at the first mission to the moon.

– There is also, of course, the joy of listening to Claude Debussy’s masterpiece Clair de Lune, the third movement of Suite bergamasque and a piano depiction of a Paul Verlaine poem.

Sophie Haigney headshot

Sophie Haigney

Sophie Haigney is a reporter and critic who has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Economist and Slate.