Cover image for Space-Age Aesthetics: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and the Postwar European Avant-Garde  By Stephen Petersen

Space-Age Aesthetics

Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and the Postwar European Avant-Garde

Stephen Petersen


$88.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03342-6

320 pages
8" × 9.5"
24 color/113 b&w illustrations

Refiguring Modernism

Space-Age Aesthetics

Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and the Postwar European Avant-Garde

Stephen Petersen

“In the Space Age,” wrote Italian artist Lucio Fontana, “spatial art.” Fontana’s desire to create art in space came in response to unprecedented technological advances and contemporary fantasies of space travel. Fifteen years before Andy Warhol said he wanted to be as much a part of his times as rockets and television, Fontana’s large-scale light-and-space installations became a short-lived but ultimately influential art-world phenomenon. The artists discussed in Space-Age Aesthetics looked beyond the limits of the picture, exploring space, mass media, pop culture, nuclear power, and science fiction to connect new art to the dramatic changes taking place through the encroaching Space Age.


  • Description
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
“In the Space Age,” wrote Italian artist Lucio Fontana, “spatial art.” Fontana’s desire to create art in space came in response to unprecedented technological advances and contemporary fantasies of space travel. Fifteen years before Andy Warhol said he wanted to be as much a part of his times as rockets and television, Fontana’s large-scale light-and-space installations became a short-lived but ultimately influential art-world phenomenon. The artists discussed in Space-Age Aesthetics looked beyond the limits of the picture, exploring space, mass media, pop culture, nuclear power, and science fiction to connect new art to the dramatic changes taking place through the encroaching Space Age.

Space-Age Aesthetics begins by addressing the imagery of space exploration as a field of mythical representation informed by Cold War politics and acted out in an expansive variety of media, from the picture press to comic books. Through persuasive arguments that reveal the many-layered interconnections between the artists’ aesthetics and theoretical responses to the dawn of an age of revolutionary technologies, this book offers new ways to think about the historical emergence of pop, conceptual, postmodern, and installation art and serves to fill the long-neglected gap in material on the post–World War II European avant-garde.

Stephen Petersen is an independent scholar and recipient of a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Penn Humanities Forum. He has published articles in Art Journal, Art on Paper, Visual Resources, Science in Context, and The Burlington Magazine.


List of Illustrations


Introduction: Space, Fiction, and the Avant-Garde

1 Launching the Spatial Movement in Postwar Milan

2 Avant-Garde Alienation: Enrico Baj and Interplanetary Art

3 “Man In Space!”: Yves Klein’s Astronautics

4 Floating “Zero”

Conclusion: Adventures in Inner Space

Select Bibliography


Space, Fiction, and the Avant-Garde

It was a fantasy for centuries before any man flew. Even now, in the interstellar spaces, the myth, the fiction, is again ahead.

—Lawrence Gowing and Richard Hamilton, Man, Machine and Motion

The U.S. government, in its bid to lead the way in the “conquest of outer space” following World War II, called its pioneering satellite program of the mid-1950s, “Vanguard.” In a highly visible public relations effort, books and articles were devoted, as it turned out prematurely, to the anticipated success of Project Vanguard, most notably Martin Caidin’s 1957 popular-science book, Vanguard! The Story of the First Man-Made Satellite. The author seemed so sure of the imminent success of the project that he devoted large portions of the book to a detailed, present-tense narration of “one of the greatest moments in . . . history: the launching of Vanguard, the first artificial space satellite.” The frontispiece of Caiden’s book shows a gleaming sphere in space. This was, said the caption: “The dream of centuries come true. The scientific satellite of Project Vanguard in space, 300 miles beyond our planet.”

Project Vanguard, however, was a spectacular failure. It was the rival Soviets who achieved the first satellite launch, on October 4, 1957. Caidin’s Vanguard! published in the months before Sputnik’s launch, was intended to be what George Pal had termed, in reference to his 1951 film Destination Moon, a “documentary of the near future.” It ended up as fiction.

The climactic moment of Caidin’s narrative is when the Vanguard rocket leaves the atmosphere, crossing into outer space. The book concludes with a flourish, describing this moment as it would appear for all to witness:

For a brief moment, thousands of people will see the mark of Vanguard. High above the earth, against the blue of the sky, the ascending rocket will paint a broad white stripe—the vapor trial created by the flaming exhaust. And then, suddenly, as the rocket leaves the bulk of the atmosphere behind, the white swath will end.

A long vertical streak in the heavens—proclaiming to one and all that man’s first space satellite is on its way into the vacuum beyond our atmosphere. . . .

It will be truly a great moment, for all of us.

In Caidin’s imagination, the rocket becomes an abstract painter; its vapor trail, the “mark of Vanguard,” a great brushstroke in the sky. Technological achievement and mass spectacle are here collapsed into the metaphor of a superhuman artist making an unprecedented gesture, meant to be visible to all.

When the nascent American space program took the name “Vanguard” for its satellite project, it was in all likelihood not for the word’s traditional military associations (militarism was scrupulously downplayed in the project overall) but as Caidin’s metaphor highlights, for its associations with the concept of scientific and cultural advancement and even as Caidin depicts it, with the bold innovation of the modern artist. Indeed, some of the same historical forces that, in Serge Guilbaut’s important analysis, contributed to the notion of the “victory of an American super-avant-garde” in postwar painting are also evident in the satellite program—among them a nationalistic desire to project to the world, and to Western Europe in particular, an image of bold innovation and universal freedom. The failed American rocket project came to be called, mockingly, “Project Offguard,” “Flopnik,” and “Kaputnik,” although the eventual American response—the total dominance of space from the mid-1960s into the twenty-first century—is well known.

On the side of art, the fate of the European avant-garde in the years after World War II has itself all too often been relegated, especially in the American art historical tradition, to that of a failure on the launch pad. Such pat formulations as the postwar “triumph of American painting” and the assumptions underlying and devolving from it, have tended to represent the European avant-garde as trailing behind the American in the postwar decades or, in a related construction, as all too reliant on strategies pioneered by the prewar European moderns. This position was summed up in the title of an article by Clement Greenberg that appeared in Art in America in 1965: “America Takes the Lead, 1945–1965.” Indeed, it may not simply be coincidence that the American satellite program assumed the mythical guise of the vanguard artist just as American artists and critics were claiming to have “taken the lead” in modern art. In painting as well as rocketry, America was now being promoted as “first with the major advances” (a slogan from a 1953 RCA television advertisement), this despite the fact that the very concept of vanguardism as the defining quality of modern art, like much of the technology of rocketry, originated in prewar Europe.

From a European perspective, however, Caidin’s metaphor—the space rocket as paintbrush—could also work the other way round, as when the Dutch painter Karel Appel, whose work was deliberately crude and sometimes fierce in its gesturalism, wrote: “My paint is like a rocket which describes its own space. I try to make the impossible possible. What is happening I cannot foresee.” With his simile Appel sought to convey the impulsive energy and bold improvisation of his characteristically informel paintings (fig. 2); the “rocket which describes its own space” followed no rules but its own. The rocket here became an emblem for experimental vanguardism, conceived as breaking with all artistic convention.

Despite the great cultural distance separating Caidin, an American space booster and mass-market author promoting a U.S. government satellite project, from Appel, a self-styled revolutionary painter living in postwar Paris, it is significant that each found in the domain of the other a useful, if far-fetched, point of reference. In the case of Caidin’s rocket that paints, the verbal image of the artist’s touch serves to humanize the technological (and military) achievement of an unmanned space launch. Conversely, Appel’s “paint . . . like a rocket” ironically appropriates the notion of advanced space-age technology to describe what is, in fact, an idiosyncratic personal gesture. Caidin conceived space as an empty canvas, while Appel imagined the canvas as a wide-open space. The almost reciprocal needs to, on the one hand, humanize large-scale scientific and technological enterprises and, on the other hand, give a sense of urgency and contemporaneity to what takes place in the restricted realm of paint on canvas ultimately reflects the fairly polarized positions of advanced art and advanced science after World War II, as articulated, among other places, in C. P. Snow’s influential “two cultures” argument of the late 1950s.

Beyond this fundamental difference, an underlying concern common to both metaphors (rocket-as-paint, paint-as-rocket) was the uncertain fate of the individual brushstroke in the face of explosive technological change. What, if anything, would the painterly gesture mean in the age of space, the atom, and global telecommunications? And, more practically, how could vanguard artists remain visible, and relevant, in an era of international mass media, when “thousands of people will see the mark of Vanguard” and presumably millions more will watch it on television or read about it in the picture press?

The issue of abstract painting’s insufficiency in the face of rapid scientific and technological advance was addressed for a mass audience in a two-page advertisement run by the American oil company Esso in the French illustrated monthly Réalités in July 1959. The ad featured a contemporary-looking spatter-painting made of light-colored drops on a dark ground, suggesting nebulae and galaxies in space, overlaid with an array of graphic diagonal lines resembling cosmic rays (fig. 3). Made by a Swiss designer, the image connoted not only informel painting and Abstract Expressionism but scientific diagrams of light beams in space. The advertising copy—which was set like a modern poem—related the painting to dramatic new discoveries in (astro- and nuclear) physics:

To understand . . .

Is it still possible to understand the modern world whose frightful complexity grips us?

An artist can, at the most, evoke it. . . .

Even his overflowing imagination stops well short of reality . . .

How can matter be dominated

without the help of eminent researchers,

[and] of their laboratories’ prodigious apparatus . . .

The message was clear. The modern artist’s attempt to portray the changing nature of physical reality could not compete with the actual manipulation of matter in scientific research facilities such as Esso’s.

The advertisement concluded by invoking an image of modern art in order to publicize Esso’s research and development: “In the avant-garde of scientific research, Esso works for you.” The American oil company, like the American satellite project, was selling itself to Western Europe by comparing itself with the artistic vanguard, even while dismissing outright the importance of the artist in the complex contemporary world. The implication was that the avant-garde artist could not match the advances then taking place in space travel and atomic exploration. As Marshall McLuhan wrote in his 1964 Understanding Media, “There is no longer any sense in talking about the artist’s being ahead of his time. Our technology is, also, ahead of its time.”

While the so-called triumph of American painting was taking place in the 1940s and 1950s, characterized by the heroic modernist canvases of the New York school, the issue of avant-garde painting itself had become increasingly problematic. For some artists in Western Europe, it was a foregone conclusion that painting would become an antiquated form in the fast-approaching space age. “I assure you that on the moon,” wrote the Milanese artist Lucio Fontana in 1949, “they will not be painting, but they will be making Spatial art.” Fontana’s arte spaziale would be an art in and of space—as he put it in 1951, “contained in space in all its dimensions.” In contrast, Jackson Pollock, the epitome of advanced painting in the early 1950s, was, Fontana would later say, merely a “Post-Impressionist.” Painterly expression, Fontana implied, was almost a quaint notion in an era of interplanetary travel and satellite communication.

The notion that “man” would soon “conquer space” had become the subject of widespread speculation in the international mass media within months of the close of World War II. As early as November 1946, eighteen months after the European victory, a short but prophetic article appeared in the Illustrated London News with the headline: “By Space-Rocket to the Moon? Problems, Which Prevent Man from Journeying in Outer Space, Explained.” Calling attention to the “rapid advances science is making today in its conquest of the upper air,” the article evaluated the prospects for unmanned trips to the moon, concluding that the idea was, in the wake of wartime developments, entirely feasible. A two-page spread of black-and-white illustrations by “our special artist, G. H. Davis,” showed the course and sequence of a “space-rocket” on a lunar journey. Acknowledging that “inter-planetary travel” was “still in the realm of fantasy,” the article advanced the idea of multistage rockets powered by atomic energy. This development, it declared, “would be the first step in man’s conquest of outer space.”

At the time it was not unreasonable to say, as did the editor of an influential Swiss book on astronomy published in 1946, that “the entire world is talking about atomic bombs, stratospheric rockets and planes, interstellar voyages.” Already in 1946, space epitomized the postwar era’s sense of anticipation and imagination (as well as dread in the form of the atom bomb). The discussion of space travel spanned art and science, mass and elite, left and right. And if space did not actually become a medium for universal communication, it was frequently associated with the idea of universal communication as an aesthetic, technological, and social ideal.

Also heralding the advent of space travel in 1946, the U.S. government released to the international press a series of photographs taken by cameras mounted on a captured, reconstructed German V-2 rocket launched at the White Sands proving ground in New Mexico on November 21. Perhaps the most dramatic of these was featured as a half-page illustration in Life magazine in December (fig. 4). Taken from sixty-five miles up, at the apex of the rocket’s trajectory, the image shows a wedge of earth seen from above the clouds, with a wispy, diagonal horizon, surmounted by an inky expanse of outer space. With substantially more space than earth in the image, blackness predominates. According to the photograph’s caption, only the “thin, pale fringe” of the lower atmosphere separated the earth from the “cold blackness of outer space.”

This photograph, said Life, “shows the earth as it has never been seen before.” Although following in the tradition of aerial photography begun by Felix Nadar in the nineteenth century and continuing in this century with the use of high-altitude, unmanned balloons to take photographs, this image signaled a radically adjusted position with respect to the earth. It read (with some help from the texts) as an image seen from outer space. This was further dramatized by a series of three smaller pictures showing the receding earth as photographed during the rocket’s ascent. In the first image, taken at one thousand feet, “details of roads and buildings are clear,” whereas, by the third photograph made near the apogee of its climb, “even the most imposing features of the earth’s surface begin to fade.” As the rocket draws away from earth, an increasingly abstract image emerges.

While such a view had long been imagined in popular science and science fiction, the claim now was that it was being seen for the first time, affording the camera surrogate human status. As a new class of image, photographs from space were both representational and abstract, uniquely exalted and, in the postwar period, becoming increasingly commonplace in the picture press and cinema. Literally extraterrestrial, they embodied the new global circulation of images (through their appearance in Life and elsewhere) while picturing that very globe from a spectacular vantage point, what Fontana would in 1951 label the “spatial point of view.”

In March 1947, the U.S. Navy released an aerial photograph showing the earth from an even higher altitude, one hundred miles above the earth’s surface (fig. 5). Occupying a full page as Life’s “picture of the week” for March 31, 1947, the image was also widely reproduced in other publications in the United States and Europe. At first glance, the black-and-white photograph is almost illegible, consisting of light and dark blotches strewn across a field, delimited only by the picture’s framing edges and by a slightly sloping arc at top of the image—the earth’s visibly curving horizon as seen from space. As a landscape vista, this image shows a remarkable expanse, some 200,000 square miles of the earth’s surface, seen from yet another higher-than-ever position.

The Life caption emphasized the revolutionary nature of this image: “On March 7, with the help of a V-2 rocket sent aloft from New Mexico’s White Sands Proving Ground by the Navy, man looked down on his earth from a greater height than ever before.” This rhetoric of global humanistic progress was perhaps reinforced by the disappearance, in the photograph, of the border between the United States and Mexico, as evident from an accompanying map. Unlike the earlier photograph, the geography here was decipherable (with the map’s help); the Gulf of California and a bit of the Pacific Ocean were clearly visible in the upper left portion of the image.

Viewed in somewhat less humanistic fashion, these photographs fit within a centuries-old tradition of victors publicly displaying the spoils of war. The V-2 rockets from which both sets of photographs were taken had been constructed from parts seized at Hitler’s underground factory in Nordhausen following the German surrender. American troops had reached the rockets ahead of the Soviets and had transported them back to a new proving ground in White Sands, New Mexico. The United States had also won over most of the German rocket scientists, who came willingly to the United States to continue their research. Chief among them was Werner von Braun, the idealistic rocketeer who had at the start of the 1930s assembled his famous Rocket Team, and who would become the architect and chief proponent of U.S. space development in the 1950s. The V-2s he developed for the Nazis had, as long-range missiles, terrorized London toward the end of the war. In contrast, according to Life, the U.S. Navy rocket’s warhead had been filled not with explosives but with recording instruments. By implication, previously destructive rocket technology was now being put in the service of scientific exploration.

But there was another, more pressing political message in the public release of such images. With the German V-2s having been snatched away from the Soviets, the publication of these V-2 photographs became, effectively, early shots in the cold war. They seemed to verify the newly superior position of the United States in the conquest of outer space (and, by association, in the race to develop intercontinental missiles).

Moral concerns about man’s conquest of space were later raised by philosopher Hannah Arendt in a 1963 essay of that title, where she speculated on the fact that humans in space would no longer occupy “one definite point.” The actual achievement of a spatial viewpoint above the earth, because it was not fixed (and in Einsteinian space could not be fixed), she argued, will lead to a whole new set of proportions and destroy preexisting ones. She critically noted the obsession with which the superpowers’ space programs attempted to place actual men in such a radically groundless position: “It is as though Einstein’s imagined ‘observer poised in free space’—surely the creation of the human mind and its power of abstraction—is being followed by the bodily observer who must behave as though he were a mere child of abstraction and imagination. It is at this point that all the theoretical perplexities of the new physical world intrude . . . upon man’s everyday world and throw out of gear his ‘natural,’ that is, earthbound, common sense.” Ultimately for Arendt, man’s conquest of space would render obsolete the very term “man,” as well as many of the theoretical underpinnings of humanism. Such a critique challenged the very central cliché of space technology, that it was an instrument of humanistic conquest.

Arendt was pointing to what has remained the largely unexamined rhetoric of space exploration. As a typical example, Life’s statement that “with the help of a V-2 rocket . . . man looked down on his earth from a greater height than ever before” posited a mythical humanist value for what had transpired in a specific national framework (mythical in the Barthesian sense, namely, depoliticized and universalizing). Recording instruments in space became metaphorical extensions of a now universal “man,” who assumed a uniquely privileged view of the globe. When the same photograph appeared in the Illustrated London News, however, there was a comparative absence of such rhetoric; the fact that the image came from an automatic camera atop a rocket fired by “U.S. authorities” was stated in more straightforward terms.

Such rhetorical restraint notwithstanding, mainstream European publications typically embraced the visions of the future being offered by proponents of space travel in the United States. “Man’s first flight into space,” the editor of a British science-fiction journal wrote in 1953, “is . . . the most eagerly awaited event in the foreseeable future, riveting our attention and stirring our imagination.” The prospect of manned space flight was thus cast in romantic terms for mass consumption, as it was elsewhere throughout the Western world.

In 1949, Paris Match, the new, large-format, and lavishly illustrated French weekly modeled on the American magazines Life and Look, published a ten-page article entitled “How You Will Visit the Moon and the Planets,” with the subtitle, “These marvelous voyages will soon be possible.” The article, which was closely based on The Conquest of Space, a new American book written by Willy Ley, a former German Rocket Society member, with illustrations by Chesley Bonestell, was the major feature in that week’s Match, taking up a full fourth of the issue’s editorial content in spectacular fashion; of the article’s ten pages, seven were entirely pictures, with three in full color, a relative novelty at the time. The illustrations showed imaginary views such as the giant planet Saturn as it might appear from one of its moons and the green and orange Martian landscape as seen from the edge of one of the planet’s ice caps (fig. 6).

In its general editorial content, Paris Match included not only news stories but also fiction and public interest pieces; the conquest of outer space was all of these at once. The article’s introduction identified its approach as speculative yet, in its scientific plausibility, fully defensible and justifiable: “Nothing, in either the drawings or in the text, depends on pure imagination. They are based on the most rigorous data of astronomy and science.” The first four illustrations showed, in black and white, a succession of ever higher views of the earth (strongly reminiscent of the Life series), as seen from an imaginary transcontinental rocket flying from New York to Hollywood. The next image showed the earth from a transatlantic rocket as it approached Europe, a thousand kilometers over the British isles with a view of the Mediterranean (fig. 7). A final illustration depicted how the earth might look from a rocket as it entered interplanetary space, some six thousand kilometers above the planet’s surface.

This sequence of illustrations owed a particular debt to the U.S. government’s V-2 photographs reproduced in Life, which they closely resembled. Indeed, Bonestell’s illustrations played artfully with the conventions of photoreproduction, so that his paintings, when reproduced, appeared uncannily like photographs, deliberately blurring distinctions of fact and fiction. The image of Europe as seen from a rocket from a thousand kilometers, while it looked like a photograph, showed a view that had at that time never been photographed, only imagined. Bonestell even reminded the viewer of this irony by discreetly placing his signature in the lower left-hand corner of the painting, along with a copyright symbol.

Bonestell was an experienced Hollywood special-effects artist, and he drew upon this background to create convincing images of space travel. The believability of his “space-art” images was largely the result of the distinctly photographic qualities of his paintings in reproduction. According to a recent historian of space illustration:

Bonestell’s space art first appeared in print in Life in 1944: a series of paintings showing Saturn as it would appear as seen from its various moons. Nothing like these images had ever been seen before. Bonestell had combined a highly polished technical skill with his experience as a Hollywood special effects matte artist to create pictures that looked more like postcards than mere “artist’s impressions.” His paintings possessed an almost intense believability that was far more important than any mere scientific facts they may have contained.

These images had a tremendous presence in postwar visual culture. In the United States, The Conquest of Space became a best-selling book, and Bonestell went on to produce “countless magazine articles, books, and special-effects art,” including “the space scenes for the highly successful science-fiction films Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, and War of the Worlds.” As a follow-up to Conquest of Space, Bonestell was the featured illustrator for a related volume, Across the Space Frontier, which offered, in the words of editor Cornelius Ryan, a “blueprint of a program for the conquest of space, prepared by some of the world’s best scientific minds on space research.” While in its pictorial style Bonestell’s “space art” was highly conventional, it sought to be adventurous in its subject matter, namely “the depiction of the universe beyond the limits of the earth.”

Bonestell’s paintings were only part of a larger international trend in the 1950s of speculation on scientific themes. Like rocket design and the artistic avant-garde, science fiction had its roots in prewar Europe; indeed, it was the appealing mix of applied science and space fantasy that had given the prewar European amateur rocket societies their great public appeal. Also like rocket design (and like “modern art”), science fiction now seemed to be in the hands of the Americans. Through the 1950s, space travel became an increasingly ubiquitous theme in American illustrated magazines, films, comic books, youth fiction, popular-science publications, advertising campaigns, and children’s toys. But despite (or perhaps because of) its identification with the United States, science fiction also became increasingly popular in Western Europe throughout the 1950s. For Europeans, science fiction was now perceived as a reflection of American culture. “When French [science fiction] re-emerged, in the early 1950s,” wrote Edward James in his Science Fiction in the 20th Century, “it owed more to figures like popular singer] Boris Vian, an enthusiast of American jazz and film as well as of [science fiction], than it did to memories of Jules Verne.” Similarly, the rise of science-fiction publications in Italy, Germany, and Britain in the 1950s was always linked, albeit in varying degrees, with the explosion of influential American publications; many European magazines simply reprinted American stories in translation. But far more than literature, it was Hollywood science-fiction films and American space adventure comic books, mass-media forms with a predominantly visual impact, that transmitted the cultural phenomenon of 1950s science fiction throughout the Western world.

Popular science and science fiction played a role in the economic Life of the postwar society as the atom and, even more so, space became marketing devices for all manner of mass-produced products, ranging from atomic ray-gun toys to salt shakers shaped like rockets to satellite desk ornaments. In the United States, there developed a trend in the 1950s whereby manufacturers “attach[ed] a space theme to an existing product to generate extra sales created by the interest in space.” In Europe, too, we find gratuitous commercial associations with space fantasy. For example, in 1950s France a brand of anchovies was called “Les trois soucoupes,” decorated with a logo of “three flying saucers.” Also cashing in on the saucer craze, the Place des Invalides in Paris boasted a popular flying-saucer-themed Ferris wheel. In 1952 Alfa Romeo introduced its prototype Disco Volante (Flying Saucer) sports car, with a streamlined design capable of going over 130 miles per hour.

The international interest in flying saucers had begun with sightings in the United States in 1947; within a year they were widely reported throughout Europe as well. In 1953, one author noted that the flying saucer phenomenon, while only a few years old, had achieved worldwide recognition: “Mention the word ‘saucer’ in any language and 10 out of 10 persons will know what you mean.”

Four years later, the word “sputnik” was similarly on everyone’s lips, in the wake of the historical Soviet satellite launch in 1957. Again a host of sometimes unlikely products claimed association. There was even in France a “Spoutnik” brand camembert. Its package showed, in the style of a science-fiction illustration, a rocket soaring above a receding earth (fig. 8), while a slogan declared it to be “le fromage de l’Avenir.” Fiction and fact blurred as flying saucers and satellites became a part of daily Life in the 1950s; as Sean Topham has put it, “The space age began to infiltrate the home.”

The “cheese of the future” may, however, have been a self-consciously ironic proposition. If an arbitrary association with space lent distinction to an otherwise mundane product, it also made a tongue-in-cheek point about the limits to which space exploration could actually transform Life on earth. The juxtaposition of a traditional French food and the technologically innovative object that launched the space age was an absurdity that would not, one suspects, have gone completely unnoticed by contemporary consumers.

The fromage Spoutnik also had political overtones. In Western Europe, where communism remained an active political alternative in the 1950s, Sputnik’s launch provided a sudden boost for pro-Soviet leftists. More generally, as the camembert container suggests, Europeans could find in Sputnik a cause for celebration (from an American perspective, Sputnik was somewhat more threatening). Said one French writer in the weeks immediately following Sputnik, “A new era of humanity has opened: the interplanetary era.” For left-leaning Europeans, Sputnik showed the Soviet Union surpassing the United States in what had appeared to be a clear area of American dominance. In this respect, the satellite functioned foremost as a publicity vehicle for the Soviet government in the cold war. President Eisenhower had loudly proclaimed the intention of the United States to launch an artificial satellite before the end of 1958; yet the Soviet Union, with far less advance publicity, had actually done so, offering a real accomplishment in the place of endless images. Comparing the Soviets’ achievement to the Americans’ less ambitious and, in 1957, less successful satellite project, a French historian of the cold-war space race observed how Sputnik’s triumph derived from its real presence in the visual field: it “truly constitutes a reality: everyone can observe it in the night sky. It was made for that.” Sputnik offered visual evidence, in contrast to (or at least in addition to) high-flown rhetoric.

In the immediate wake of Sputnik, the Soviets had a string of successful space launches, including Sputnik II (November 3, 1957), which carried a dog into orbit; Luna I (January 1958), the first rocket to leave orbit; Luna II (September 12, 1959), the first man-made object to land on the moon; and Luna III (also September 1959), which successfully transmitted images of the dark side of the moon back to earth. American successes came later, preceded by some grandiose failures, notably the spectacular December 1957 explosion, on the launch pad, of the much heralded Vanguard rocket, referred to in the press as “Kaputnik” and publicized worldwide.

The public relations embarrassment of the failed American rocket launch led to ironic associations with the very word “vanguard.” In 1957, a science-fiction publication starting up in the United States had planned to call itself Vanguard Science Fiction. When the inaugural issue was published in the summer of 1958, the editor acknowledged that the journal’s chosen title had initially been a hopeful reference to the American satellite project. “Then,” he recounted, “came the epochal announcements of October 4, November 3 and November 7, and Project Vanguard abruptly became Project Offguard.” The editor decided, nonetheless, to keep the name. “To be sure,” he wrote, “the associations with the American satellite project are now a dubious asset; but we are not really in the satellite business.” Meanwhile, taking advantage of their success, the Soviets conspicuously stepped up their publicity efforts, especially in Western Europe, where, between 1955 and 1960, public opinion was reversed concerning the technological and military superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union.

As the very term “race for space” suggests, space was contested terrain in the postwar decades. The idealistic, international rhetoric of “man’s conquest of space” coexisted with a much more practical, political, and nationalistic notion of cold-war “space superiority.” In a 1952 discussion of Werner von Braun’s proposed space station, Collier’s editor Cornelius Ryan wrote how world peace depended on the West gaining “space superiority”: “The space station could be the greatest force for peace ever devised or one of the most terrible weapons of war—depending on who builds or controls it.” One could easily substitute “atom bomb” for “space station” in Ryan’s discussion (and the fear of space-launched bombs was no doubt implicit in his remarks). Of the two, however, it was far easier to romanticize the space station, which unlike the atom bomb afforded an easy reconciliation between scientific, humanistic, and military concerns. “The potentialities of a space station in a world at peace transcend the imagination,” wrote Ryan.

Despite his invocation of a transcendent imagination, the contradictions of the modern mythology of space flight are evident in Ryan’s pro-technology, pro-American position. The driving military interest in space, still strong today, has consistently been turned, rhetorically, to the humanistic rhetoric of space exploration. For the public (in the West, at least), space flight was both exciting in its promise of achieving the previously impossible and, from the start, almost reassuring in the way it conformed to popular imaginings. Its military origins and imperatives were often minimized, or displaced onto fictional, “entertaining” narratives of alien invasions and interplanetary warfare.

In their Picture History of Inventions, originally published in Italy in 1961, Umberto Eco and G. B. Zorzoli pointed out how global militarism had been, in a sense, sublimated by the age-old dream of human flight:

In this way a curious thing occurred, for modern research on space flight came to be connected with sixteenth and seventeenth century Utopias, the two being combined in a single cultural and moral attitude. The utopian writers of past centuries had conceived flights into space as a form of escapism, as an amusing lesson in morality, turning men away from their immediate concern with the vanities of the world and inducing them to ponder the real dimensions of the Cosmos. . . . When the cold war was at its height and the rivalry between the two powers took the form of piling up ever more terrifying nuclear and conventional armaments, the space race came into the picture almost as some “philosophical” corrective, shifting competition onto the plane of peaceful progress, even though the motives were governed by military needs.

Eco and Zorzoli saw the space age as a direct and potentially positive outgrowth of cold-war military tensions, a technological reprieve from the equally technological threat of a third and possibly final world war.

The atomic threat was a problem of global proportions. A French film historian writing in 1958 noted that “Hiroshima is still recent; its fate could be, tomorrow, that of Paris, London, New York.” The phrase “the entire world” took on new meaning in the era of postwar globalism, when it seemed possible to envision the world destroyed or, alternately, left behind as “man” moved into space.

Atomic threat aside, the idea of “man in space” in the 1950s pushed, in various ways, at the very boundaries of what it meant to be human. The 1955 Walt Disney television special Man in Space featured a character with the joking name Homo sapiens extra-terrestrialis—implying that man in space was a sort of subspecies, or, as it was frequently imagined, an evolutionary step for mankind. Ironically, though, homo sapiens extra-terrestrialis was shown as Mr. Average Man, a 1950s male Caucasian heterosexual who “encounters difficulties and adventures in adjusting to interplanetary rocket travel” (fig. 9). Among the difficulties was the fact that his cocktail—a dry martini—would, in zero-gravity, float right out of the glass. In its juxtaposition of Everyman and the environment of outer space, Disney’s whimsical cartoon character addressed serious concerns about the effect of space flight on humans, including the possible temporary loss of the “skill at consecutive thinking”—the fear that in space, one’s sense of time and logic would disappear altogether. Disney followed up Man in Space the next year with Our Friend the Atom, a book and animated cartoon, where the genie of atomic destruction was given a second chance and reemerged as a force for peace—an idea that parallels the Atoms for Peace movement of the mid-1950s. The humanization of space travel and atomic energy became the theme of both education and entertainment.

The 1958 World’s Fair, held in Brussels, was a celebration of space and atomic technology. Devoted to the theme “scientific civilization and humanism,” Expo 58 took for its symbol the atom. The “Eiffel Tower” of the Brussels Exposition was a hundred-meter-tall, stainless-steel model of a molecule; called the Atomium, it towered over the fairgrounds and at night became a luminous spectacle (fig. 10). Inside the Atomium were exhibits on the uses of the atom; visitors could go from atom to atom via escalators. The atom here signified a new source of unlimited energy for a world at peace. More broadly, the Atomium stood as a cultural symbol. From the outside, it had a distinctly space-age design (the atomic spheres looked like satellites). The Brussels Exposition featured, in addition to the Atomium and the national pavilions, an exhibition entitled “Fifty Years of Modern Art,” devoted to work from van Gogh to the present day, and, as part of the amusement park, “a 21/2-minute journey in an interplanetary rocket which, it is claimed, produces the sensation of travel to an artificial satellite moving round the planet Mars.” Also on view were a replica of Sputnik, and a stand-alone pavilion sponsored by Philips Electronics featuring the multimedia Poème électronique, with music by Edgar Varèse and an automated light-and-image projection designed by Le Corbusier. The goal was a technologically advanced, entertaining “spatial-color-light-music production” featuring imagery of Life on earth confronted with the atomic and space-age future.

The question of modern art’s significance in a world being redefined by the atom, space flight, and new media technology was probed at the end of the decade in the pages of Art International in an ambitious, three-part essay by French painter and author Georges Mathieu. Entitled “Towards a New Convergence of Art, Thought and Science,” the article opened with a montage that placed an example of Mathieu’s calligraphic abstraction (what he called direct painting or lyrical nonfiguration) alongside a diagram of a human brain, with a photograph of a space module “floating” in front of both, appearing to enter into the space of the painting (fig. 11). In the illustration, Mathieu’s dynamic brushstroke, white against a dark ground, reads as an image of energy traversing space. The picture of the space capsule in fact shows a scale model, evident from the cropped fingers of a hand grasping the object in the upper part of the picture. The cropped fingers have been integrated into the design, connected with the diagram of the brain. The illustration thus becomes a neat allegory for the article’s theme of art, thought, and science.

As the Art International reader was not necessarily aware, but the designer of the illustration (whether this was Mathieu or someone else) would have been, the cropped fingers belonged to the German rocket scientist Werner von Braun American space effort. The picture of the space capsule was cut out from a 1952 news photograph showing von Braun posing with his model of a space vessel (fig. 12). While the image had been published in Time magazine in 1952, Mathieu’s immediate source seems to have been a popular-science book published in France in 1958 called L’univers à portée de la main (The Universe Within Reach), part of a series called “D’un monde à l’autre.” The image, there, is credited to the United States Information Agency (USIA), the governmental group charged with publicizing American cultural achievements around the world. In Art International, however, no source is given for the illustrations in Mathieu’s article. The space capsule had become a free-floating signifier of space-age technology.

The message of the montage, juxtaposing painting, brain, and spaceship, was that a new consciousness was transforming both art and science. This notion was the theme of the essay, in which Mathieu sought to define the new painting of his era as part of a larger cultural transformation. Whereas Western culture since the ancient Greeks had striven to bring “the cosmos down to human proportions,” the new art, according to Mathieu, “has in effect got rid of the last surviving canons of beauty to re-discover an infinite freedom where anything again becomes possible.” The basis of art had changed. “Instead of the ‘reduction of the Cosmos to the dimension of man,’” wrote Mathieu, “the work of art is nothing more nor less than an opening out into the Cosmos.” The article’s opening illustration therefore pictured the painting itself as a cosmic space, complete with space ship.

The long article was illustrated with a range of images taken from the realms of art, science, and mathematics. A schematic diagram of an atom opened the third section of the essay, while opposite it was a photograph of a U.S. Air Force Atlas missile being launched. The latter image was, like that of von Braun’s space capsule, a USIA photograph taken from L’univers à portée de la main, though, again, no identifying information was provided—the illustration here again serving for its generic rather than specific associations with the text. In these pages, Mathieu discussed the relation between art and science: “While all classical values in the field of art are collapsing, a parallel and equally profound revolution is taking place in the domain of the sciences.” He cited “the recent breakup of concepts relating to space, matter . . . and gravitation” as examples of the collapse of classical scientific principles. Together the atom and the rocket blast emblematized the new science and, by analogy, the new art, thereby collapsing scientific and artistic progress.

In his Theory of the Avant-Garde, Renato Poggioli called the notion of artistic experimentation, metaphorically taking place in the “laboratory” or the “proving ground,” “one of the splendid commonplaces of avant-gardism.” In the immediate postwar era the most compelling laboratories were those of nuclear physics, and the most exciting proving grounds were rocket launch pads. The atom and outer space provided, for postwar artists, an iconography of experimentation, itself one of the principles of vanguardism. Poggioli called “avant-gardism” the “typical chronic condition of contemporary art.” While individual avant-gardes inevitably fall into academicism, the notion of vanguardism (being “first with the major advances”) itself persists as a self-renewing principle of modern art and, Poggioli would suggest, of modern culture.

As we have seen, in many ways the ultimate act of “experimental vanguardism” in 1950s culture was to cross the space frontier, which separated the past from the future, the known from the unknown, the terrestrial from the extraterrestrial. In the avant-gardist rhetoric of space travel, being “first” or “highest” or going “farthest” was a recurring theme. Cornelius Ryan’s Across the Space Frontier begins with an anecdote about a young American test pilot who had recently “made history” by flying fifteen miles above the earth. The pilot had, said Ryan, “flown higher and faster than man had ever done before. . . . He had actually reached the borders of space.”

Crossing over into infinite space was an idea that had been central to one of the most radical statements in modern art, Kasimir Malevich’s white-on-white Suprematist abstractions of 1919, which offered a vision of revolutionary transcendence. In a 1919 Suprematist text that was translated into French in 1957 (which is to say, roughly at the time of the “Spoutnik” cheese), Malevich, a critical figure for the postwar vanguard in Europe, explained his white paintings by addressing himself to the “Aviateurs de l’avenir”: “Aviators of the future, fly. White, free and limitless!” The image of space flight here signified a transcendent purity and a bold aesthetic challenge. On the other hand, as countless examples make clear, it might also serve as an easy marketing gimmick, as with the “cheese of the future.”

Indeed, in the 1950s, the mythology of space exploration was largely propagated through “kitsch” as critic Clement Greenberg had defined it: “magazine covers, illustrations, advertisements, slick and pulp fiction, comics, . . . Hollywood movies, etc., etc.” The vision of humanity’s future in space was the province not so much of the avant-garde in the restrictive sense of a cultural elite, but of popular culture in all its forms and manifestations, from Hollywood films to comic books, pulp fiction, children’s books and toys, pictures magazines, and general interest books, such as Caidin’s Vanguard! “Aviators of the future” in the form of spacemen and their rocket ships were ubiquitous in the mass media of the postwar decades.

For the artists and critics working in England in the 1950s known as the Independent Group, the visual domain of science fiction represented the popular imagination’s accommodation of technological change. As such, the group argued, science fiction had actually usurped the modern artist’s role as herald of the future. Looking to both the disruptive cultural engagement of the Dada movement and the technological utopianism of Italian Futurism, the Independent Group found in Greenbergian kitsch, and especially in contemporary depictions of the future in the mass media, an alternative to what they saw as an orthodox and out-of-touch modernism. The popular artist was the contemporary mythmaker, space flight the contemporary myth. With tongue frequently in cheek, the Independent Group showed endless interest in what artist Richard Hamilton once called the “corny future.”

Popular science and science fiction were indeed fundamental to the development of Pop art in Britain. In April 1952, in what is widely cited as the first meeting of the Independent Group, a group of young British artists, architects, and critics convened at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London for a lecture-presentation by the Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi entitled “Bunk.” Paolozzi’s presentation was a departure from the usual “cultural” programming at the ICA, founded in 1947 by Roland Penrose and Herbert Read as a center for modern art in London. Paolozzi’s “bunk” (an American slang term for nonsense or fakery) referred to found imagery from (mostly American) illustrated magazines and pulp journals, the type of imagery that would be dismissed by “serious” modern artists, but which Paolozzi believed deserved a second look. Pulp magazines were by definition disposable, as Paolozzi’s casual presentation (both epidiascope and collage) made clear; they represented fleeting impressions on the cultural screen, collective fantasies. By most accounts of the original evening, Paolozzi unceremoniously projected the found images in apparently random order, with little or no commentary, in what one author has called a “deluge of visual material, delivered without pause, logical organization, or didactic explanation.” As a student in Paris, Paolozzi had been involved with Surrealism, which no doubt influenced his presentation of freely associated images without a logical framework. Among the types of images projected by Paolozzi at that “very first IG meeting in 1952” would have been examples of science-fiction cover art.

Referred to by one scholar as a “historic occasion,” Paolozzi’s epidiascope show was the mythical founding moment of pop art. Paolozzi’s lecture itself was an ephemeral event. In fact, neither the exact date nor the precise contents of the legendary show can be specified with any certainty. The only record of it is an imperfect one from two decades later—Paolozzi’s 1972 print series, Bunk: A Box-File Containing 45 Images from Eduardo Paolozzi’s Files, published by Snail Chemicals. The prints are carefully constructed facsimiles of Paolozzi’s rudimentary collages, often just one or two clippings from illustrated magazines pasted on a piece of cardboard. Since 1947, Paolozzi had collected illustrations, culled largely from American illustrated magazines, focusing on the themes of advertising and new products, entertainment, and technology. Though the Bunk prints have been identified, by Paolozzi and others, as copies of the extant source material used in the 1952 epidiascope show, several of the collaged clippings and tear sheets clearly date from December 1952, eight months after the presumed date of Paolozzi’s lecture. Still, the 1972 box of prints offers, in its random order and minimal alterations, a parallel experience to the famous epidiascope show—a sprawling assortment of postwar mass-media images, allowed to speak for themselves, and in juxtaposition.

The Bunk portfolio includes the mounted cover of the American pulp science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories from February 1952, showing a cyclopean robot fighting off jet planes as a city burns in the background (fig. 13). A text on the cover asks, “Can Earth repel an alien invader?” The collage takes its title from a second cover blurb: “Was this Metal Monster Master—or Slave? ”—a question that might be asked about technology itself. For Paolozzi, science fiction was an expression of urgent contemporary issues relating to both fantasies and fears about technology.

By exploring what he himself would later call the “iconography of the present,” Paolozzi directly engaged the ways in which the future was projected using clichés of the present day. This future, evidence of the desires and fears of the present, needed to be taken seriously (though not, Paolozzi’s whimsical collages make clear, too seriously). As he later explained it: “It was a declaration about the state of what seemed to be the official modern art school then. There was a sort of idea—that was the whole Independent Group idea—that there were other valid considerations about art besides the aesthetic ones; and that those were basically in kind sociological, almost anthropological, if you like. It was like trying to discern the actual culture, in terms of one’s actual surroundings, one’s actual intake of ideas.” In 1952, the boom in science fiction was, conspicuously, cresting, even as the realities of the space age had yet to dawn.

In the 1950s, the term “space art” referred to the range of science-fiction and popular-science illustrations of space travel. Both Paolozzi and Hamilton, along with Independent Group critics Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham and artist John McHale, focused on the proLiferation of representations of space culled from the American mass media and from the work of commercial “space artists.” They found in space illustration a pop or “corny” futurism that they believed needed to be taken seriously in terms of contemporary iconography and myth.

In his 1958 article “The Arts and the Mass Media,” Alloway tried to expand the term “culture” to embrace the systems of communication and the increasingly sophisticated mass audience that characterized contemporary society. For Alloway, the Greenbergian problem of innovative pure medium (avant-garde) versus stereotyped mass medium (kitsch) failed to account for the “topicality and rapid rate of change” that characterized the mass arts in the postwar era. Artists turned away from mass culture at their peril. As Marshall McLuhan later wrote (of the need to redefine the contemporary artist’s role): “To prevent undue wreckage in society, the artist tends now to move from the ivory tower to the control tower of society.” The rise of global telecommunications profoundly affected what it meant to be a “painter of modern Life.”

“Science fiction,” wrote Eugenie Tsai in a 1988 essay, “fascinated Independent Group (IG) members as a genre that was particularly in touch with the radical technological changes that were underway in postwar culture.” Science fiction offered the Independent Group a model of forward thinking that was widely accessible and, at the same time, conceptually challenging. According to Graham Whitman, “The Independent Group used science fiction as a means of assimilating emergent disciplines and the most advanced developments into the cultural spectrum, as well as for identifying social attitudes toward change.” Independent Group members themselves—among them Paolozzi, Hamilton, McHale, Banham, and Alloway—argued that science fiction functioned in postwar society as a method for “translating new concepts into memorable images” (as Alloway put it in 1956), performing a vital role formerly played by avant-garde artists but, he believed, largely abandoned by artists in the wake of the war. “This is worth doing,” wrote Alloway, “and, on the whole, the fine artists have given us no recent aid in this kind of visualizing.” As Alloway stated, “The iconography of the twentieth century is not in the hands of fine artists alone. . . . The futurists, dadaists, and purists have, of course, symbolized aspects of the machine and industrial Life, but so have a mass of popular artists and acknowledgement of their contribution is overdue.” Favorably comparing “science fiction cover artists” to “fine artists” was highly polemical in its time, as had been Paolozzi’s projection of what was clearly “kitsch” imagery —in a bastion of modernist culture, the Institute of Contemporary Art. Alloway’s argument followed Paolozzi’s epidiascope show by several years and was clearly informed by it. In praising science-fiction artists, Alloway was also, implicitly, making a case for art that was iconographic and sexy, rather than abstract and cerebral. Alloway found in the art of science-fiction covers “a rich continuum where science and fantasy constantly overlap.”

Among the items selected for Paolozzi’s Bunk portfolio (but postdating the April epidiascope show) is the first of many covers of Time magazine to be devoted to the subject of space travel (fig. 14). The cover, dated December 8, 1952, features a whimsical illustration by commercial artist Boris Artzybasheff of an extraterrestrial landscape with Saturn in the distance (a parody of Chesley Bonestell’s famous illustrations of Saturn seen from its moons, which had appeared in Life magazine in 1944). Standing in the foreground is a three-legged mechanical contrivance combining various forms of space-age technology into a comical robot with a space capsule for its trunk, side-jets firing; radar dishes for arms; mechanical legs; and a radio transmitter for a head, surmounted by a long antenna and sporting not one but two pairs of telescopic eyes. The character, labeled “Space Pioneer,” playfully encapsulates the scientific work then being done in the field of space exploration, the goal of which was to send man-made objects to explore the solar system and send information back by radio transmission.

The Time cover provocatively asks, “Will man outgrow the earth?” Space, in this metaphorical formulation, was likened to an evolutionary step for humanity, akin to the first move by sea creatures to land. Given the conceit of Artzybasheff’s illustration, however, there was an irony (the source of the image’s humor): “Man” was going into space by proxy, via unmanned vehicles and with the aid of automated communication devices. The “space pioneer” was no more nor less than a set of recording and transmitting instruments, an Arcimboldian assemblage of mechanical and radio technologies put at the service of exploring the cosmos. Outer space was thus a vicarious experience, accessible through advanced technology and through the media of mass communication. As if to acknowledge the necessarily mediated experience of space, the “Letter from the Publisher” announced, “This week, leaving the earth to its own complex and confused devices, Time’s cover takes you out of this world to the mysterious and challenging realms of outer space.”

The cover story, “Journey into Space,” described not only the technical requirements for space flight, as had Collier’s earlier that year in its famous series “Man Will Conquer Space Soon,” but also the public’s increasingly irrational fascination with space travel. The article opened by declaring the advent of the space age, not in fact but in the contemporary imagination: “The youngsters have already zoomed confidently off into the vast ocean of space; they can buy space suits, space guns and rockets in almost any toy shop.” But it was not only children who fantasized about space. With the overwhelming amount and disparate range of space imagery in circulation, argued Time, “separating facts from fancy about space travel [has become] almost as difficult as a trip to the moon.” The “popular vogue” for space was attributed to two recent developments in wartime technology: the atomic bomb, which had “convinced the public that ‘science can do anything,’” and the German V-2, which had “proved that a man-made vehicle can climb briefly into space.”

With new developments in space technology being kept top secret by the superpowers, the unknowing public was, said Time, “happily mixing fact & fiction.” As an example of this unchecked public enthusiasm for space travel, the article recounted how New York’s Hayden Planetarium “whimsically offered ‘reservations’ to the moon and planets [and] got 25,000 requests, many of them deadly serious, from all over the world.” Time appeared to add to the confusion, discussing the possibility of taking four-dimensional shortcuts as a way to traverse expanses of interstellar space. Even in an article addressing the very problem, it was virtually impossible to separate the science from the fiction.

The notion of space travel had become, in essence, ubiquitous in American culture and was spreading everywhere else. The pervasiveness of space-related material, exemplified by the proLiferation of science fiction in print, film, and television, was mirrored by Paolozzi in his epidiascope lecture and in his image-collecting practice more generally. In the 1950s, mass-media images of outer space in the form of science-fiction illustrations were becoming more and more common in the West, even as the experience of outer space remained an entirely imaginary one until the following decade (and for the vast number of us remains imaginary).

A second collage in Paolozzi’s Bunk portfolio, Merry Christmas with T-1 Space Suits, addressed the imaginary nature of the space age, strategically juxtaposing, one atop the other, two black-and-white photographic images with captions (fig. 15). The upper image shows two test pilots wearing a new type of inflatable flight-wear, the T-1 space suit, designed to “enable pilots to live in near-vacuum if cabin pressure fails” on high-altitude flights. In marked contrast to the two scientists also included in the image, the pilots in their space suits with external air tubes look like a different species of life altogether (or more literally, a species outfitted for life in an entirely alien environment). The lower image shows two children, dressed as astronauts carrying ray-guns, in a room full of space-related toys. The caption reads: “MERRY CHRISTMAS! Toymakers show rocket guns and interplanetary ships which jet-propelled Santa Claus will whoosh down U.S. chimneys for 1952’s space-suited kids.”

The two illustrations are iconographically parallel—each has two space-suited figures peering out from behind their space helmets—but also humorously divergent. The play between the images is especially effective given their graphic equivalence. The upper image presents “fact” and the lower a sort of fiction or fantasy: the inflatable “T-1” space suit contrasts humorously with the inflatable toy rocket, labeled “X-1,” in the bottom image; the notion of a “jet-propelled Santa Claus” plays off the real high-altitude flyers; and the seriousness of purpose of the pilots contrasts with the playfulness of the children (though selling toys was clearly serious business too).

The reference here to the bounty of futuristic toys that would rain upon the children of the American baby boom in 1952 exemplified Paolozzi’s tendency to romanticize (and at the same time, to lightly satirize) the material abundance of postwar America, which offered a consumer Lifestyle just glimpsed in Britain at this time. American techno-military progress and growing U.S. consumerism were here aligned, their shared rhetoric of space adventure revealed in the common language of the two magazine illustrations.

Though Paolozzi did not indicate his source, the two images clearly come from the same magazine. As it turns out, the source for the images is Time magazine, where they appeared in successive issues in October 1952. “Merry Christmas” was part of the weekly “News in Pictures” spread for October 6; in the layout it appeared center-spread, spanning the crease. The following week, “T-1 space suits” occupied the very same spot in that issue’s “News in Pictures” spread. While this parallel positioning was an editorial coincidence (pictures with two figures were likely candidates to be split over two pages, since the crease could pass between the figures), it may have helped to draw Paolozzi’s attention to other similarities between the two images.

This subtle juxtaposition shows how Paolozzi chose and matched his images with great care, a fact that has often been underplayed by references to his indiscriminate quality of his barrage of pulp imagery. Despite the fact that he minimally intervened in his found sources, often using them virtually as ready-mades, and even though his analysis was in some respect already present in the images themselves, Paolozzi’s method was still an analytical one. In the case of Merry Christmas with T-1 Space Suits, the suggestive interplay of space fantasy and space technology in each image is teased out through their careful juxtaposition. By placing the two photographs together, Paolozzi showed their common participation in the imaginary realm of space, evident in both the technological advances of the cold-war military and the fantasy life of consumerist children. Common to both photographs was the generic image of the spaceman, who embodied the child’s fantasy of space adventure while representing a concrete example of the U.S. government’s most advanced military training.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.