While his name may not be immediately recalled by those who are not versed in the history of science fiction illustration and astronomical art the creations of Chesley Bonestell are unmistakable and highly regarded, so it is curious why a supposed celebration of his life and work, director Douglass M Stewart Jr’s documentary Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future, should immediately set itself on the back foot by describing him as “an artist now nearly forgotten.”
Iconic, influential and highly imitated, Bonestell was an artist, architect and illustrator born in San Francisco in 1888, a witness to and survivor of the Great Earthquake of 1906, an event which the film suggests may have shaped the visions channelled into some of his later works such as those depicting a meteor strike on New York City or a nuclear detonation.
Tracing the path of his life, the son of a lawyer whose mother died when he was only nine months old, Bonestell was expected to enter a publishing business but was more interested in seeing his own work in print, his first illustrations in Sunset bringing the dubious supposition that “perhaps” an advertisement for the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton in that magazine might have laid the first steps to his later work.
Bonestell having died in 1986, he is represented in snippets of archive footage but beyond that the connections of the interviewees to the subject are transient and too often they are reading prepared statements rather than offering personal insight, their words backed by a library stock soundtrack intended to inspire overly earnest emotion while hints of what lies out of reach are cruelly teased, the dinner party whose guests were Bonestell, Ansel Adams and Richard Buckminster Fuller kept behind closed doors.
Despite this, the work of Bonestell shines through, A Brush with the Future offering samples of his architectural work including San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and New York’s Chrysler Building, his contributions to the motion picture industry in both design work and matte paintings, in particular his collaborations with George Pal on Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space and his best-selling printed collaborations with Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun which made him a household name.
Most interesting but almost peripheral is analysis of Bonestell’s evolving style and connection to his wide audience: grouped in with the “Hudson River” school of American art which presented pioneering figures dwarfed against the immensity of a frontier, explorers bold, undaunted and capable, his architectural background ensured the practicality of his space vehicles, presenting not fantasy but an achievable future which was brought into the homes of a generation, priming them for the space race of the following decades, a legacy which deserves more competent representation than this.
Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future is available now on Prime Video