‘Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography’
“The first moon landing was at once a historical inevitability and an improbable fluke” writes James Gleick. “Inevitable because we had already done it so many times in our storytelling and our dreams. Astonishing, even in hindsight, because it required such an unlikely combination of factors and circumstances. “The moon, by her comparative proximity, and the constantly varying appearances produced by her several phases, has always occupied a considerable share of the attention of the inhabitants of the earth,” remarks Jules Verne in his fantastic tale From the Earth to the Moon (1865). The French fabulist imagined that the pioneers of space would be none other than Les Yankees: “They had no other ambition than to take possession of this new continent of the sky, and to plant upon the summit of its highest elevation the star-spangled banner of the United States of America.”
“Hans Christian Andersen, Daniel Defoe, Cyrano de Bergerac, and many others had already spun stories of voyaging to the moon and meeting its natives. Verne seems to have been the first to describe the moon as it really is: desolate and uninhabited. Morton shows that he relied on the obsessive work of a Scottish engineer and artist, James Nasmyth, who observed the moon through his home-built twenty-inch telescope and made a series of drawings and clay models of the cratered lunar landscape. (See illustration above.) Verne’s moon is Nasmyth’s, Morton writes: “One of mountainous annular volcanoes, lofty impassable ramparts and little else. In particular: no air, no streams, no woods, no life.” It is, as Verne said, “beyond the pale of humanity.”
Some of Nasmyth’s photographs can be seen in a superb exhibition, “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography,” now at the Metropolitan Museum. They are peculiar and fantastic, using plaster and staged lighting to create images of mountains and craters that could not yet be properly seen—a new kind of imaginative fiction posing as science. Indeed, scientists were eager to believe: “No more truthful or striking representations of natural objects than those here presented have ever been laid before his readers by any student of science,” the journal Nature declared in March 1874. Nasmyth was building on a project that began in 1609, when Galileo Galilei spent an obsessive fortnight in a Venetian church tower drawing the spotted and shadowed disk he saw through his new telescope. He inspired fantasies. Francis Godwin, an English bishop, published The Man in the Moone in 1838, with a woodcut showing a flying machine powered by geese. William Blake drew a poignant ladder to the crescent moon captioned, “I want! I want!” (See illustration below.) Across four centuries of lunar imagery, these artistic visions and deliberate hoaxes evolved side by side with astronomers’ efforts to perfect a photographic atlas of the entire moon—or rather, the tide-locked hemisphere we can see from here. The far side had to remain invisible and uncharted.”
For more information, visit metmuseum.org.
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