For artist Raquel Forner, the subject of space exploration was a compelling way to explore the dueling senses of loss and hope that characterized her long life. First came the sense of loss: Forner was born in Argentina but travelled extensively—not only to Paris to study painting, but also to her ancestral homeland of Spain, to which she developed an especially deep philosophical and emotional connection. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Forner saw places from her childhood memories drowned in violence. The war, and the subsequent world war that followed several years later, profoundly affected the tone of her creative work. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Forner mused that only then did she “grasp the atmosphere of the world”—and the atmosphere had little hope.
The paintings that poured from Forner in the subsequent years were fittingly shadowed and brooding. Forner made use of the surreal styles popularized in Paris at the time by artists such as Salvador Dali, melting the physics of reality to match the destructive violence she saw around her. She populated her paintings in this era with archetypal female figures, oversized and posed as symbols of recurring suffering. They stood in desolate landscapes and warned of future war, a message that increased in desperation with each work. By the 1950s, Forner’s imaginings were so macabre that they teetered on the edge of apocalyptic.
Something changed in 1957. Forner became interested in international efforts in the space program and took note of the all-male, military-trained programs. The subject of space travel then slowly began to creep into her work—something about its thematic content gripped her, and the dark, war-torn landscapes in her older work started to recede. In their place, Forner created a storybook mythology, brightly colored, and filled with abstracted figures. With these first few paintings, she became one of the earliest artists to depict outer space in paintings, and she continued to create images of space almost exclusively until her death in 1988. Her painting, Return of the Astronauts, showcases this new subject matter, as she combined elements of real life—the work was a reference to the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon—and her own imagination.
Return of the Astronauts depicts a genderless figure plummeting toward Earth. The astronaut is partially gray, though containing a colorful face in their stomach that appears to be sending color shooting into their limbs. Forner’s painting includes the kind of conflict that characterized her early work, but now she presents it as more of an inconvenience, that’s overcome by the help of others. She paints the main figure in the midst of falling; it hurtles down from space past a kaleidoscope sunset and toward an ominously solid Earth. In the face of this danger, three faces, personifying a parachute, catch the plummeting astronaut. Rays emanate from them like streaming sunbeams, and their communal support promises to save the falling figure, as a red thread binds their reaching hands. As the astronaut falls, they keep their left hand pointing up, a reminder to viewers, and to Forner, of the possibilities that await them beyond the horizon, in the land of dreams. The parachute, a common symbol in Forner’s earlier war work, here symbolizes safety.
Forner portrays space as a place where human beings could go to reinvent themselves, a catalyst to transform our species into something more peaceful. In order to make this happen, Forner saw the need for a guide. And so, in her works depicting space, like Relación cósmica, grayscale figures often encounter colorful forms—the colorless figures represent humans just beginning their journey away from the Earth, whereas the second group are still human, but from the far future. The future-humans have returned, bending time and space to give their less advanced selves a hand. They pass on color and knowledge, imparting a kind of mystical enlightenment to their still-maturing, Earth-bound cousins. These figures are an evolution of her archetypal representations of war, and place her work in the realm of science fiction.
Many of the works in the National Air and Space Museum’s art collection explore the kind of fictional storytelling seen in Forner’s work. For example, Chesley Bonestell created space scenes set in the far future, loosely based on astronomical photographs. His work is based on such scientific accuracy that even he was disappointed when, following the Apollo 11 landing, he discovered that the surface of the Moon did not mirror his paintings. Another artist in the collection, Robert T. McCall, was a key figure in shaping our vision of science fiction, creating concept art for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as a number of Star Trek movies. In a time where the present was becoming increasingly uncertain, artists became more and more interested in imagining utopian worlds beyond Earth. (This corresponds with the way science fiction also started to become more commercially successful during the second half of the twentieth century, as media like Star Trek gripped the public imagination.)
Each image of the future in the Museum’s art collection is, in its own unique way, as fantastical as Forner’s. But many disguise fantasy, covering it up it through the deceptive use of a realistic painting style, to the extent that their work could conceivably be used as a scientific illustration of the Moon, or for a live-action science fiction television show.
On the other hand, Forner deliberately paints scenes that the viewer would not think they could walk directly into. She never illustrates flashy pieces of futuristic technology or alien landscapes outside the range of a viewer’s familiarity. Her figures only meet other versions of themselves. Her tumultuous brushstrokes and cacophonous shapes intentionally evoke the creative potential of space, while suggesting that such a world is within our grasp. She proposes that the challenges in space mirror the challenges still here on Earth—conflict and suffering—and both are worthy of our attention. To imagine a future sleek enough to have no problems is, in many ways, a distraction to the work that still needs to be done to get there. Exploration, creative and literal, can be a tool for self-examination.
The symbolic language seen here shows the way depictions of space could be used to imagine a utopian future. With her abstract space-related works, Forner joined a growing artistic movement within Latin America that saw an off-world future as a place where people impacted by violence in the world—war, colonialism, and other forces—could flourish. In space, humankind could start over, creating new systems of government and connection. Much like the way the colorful future-humans do for their grayscale younger selves, Forner gives viewers the means to picture that kind of utopian world, in the hopes that they could then bring it about in their daily lives.
Despite her unique approach to space and style, Raquel Forner remains an understudied artist, particularly in America. However, she was a vital creative and political force, exhibiting widely both across Argentina and abroad. She also imparted her vision onto a subsequent generation of artists—Ana Kozel, one of her many students, also appears in the National Air and Space Museum’s collection.
Forner’s humanistic vision remains important, because it was a crucial note of optimism during the uncertain period of Cold War politics. Forner created a blueprint for confronting conflict, for commemorating beliefs, for translating the messages of external events into personal hopes. Her paintings enliven the subject of space, paradoxically bringing the subject closer, making it more immediate and believable. Through her work, we are able to see the way Forner recognized freedom; it could not be found in images of a destroyed past but rather in the depictions of dreams, as her imagination leapt beyond Earth to find meaningful connection in the cosmos.
This blog contains interpretation of artwork and reflects the analysis and opinions of the author, Claire Rasmussen – Intern at the National Air and Space Museum.
 “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future”, directed by Douglass M. Stewart Jr. (2018, DMS Production Services, DVD).