Saturday, February 20, 2021

Mars on the Mind

Tonight (February 16, 2021), I heard on the radio a story about the 100-year anniversary of The Planets by the British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). I'm not sure why the story was on tonight. Holst wrote The Planets in 1914-1916, and it was first performed in 1918. The first performance of the entire suite took place on November 15, 1920. That's still more than 100 years ago.

Anyway, Holst began his work by composing "Mars, The Bringer of War," the intended or eventual first movement of The Planets. Holst didn't bring on the war in his composition of "Mars," but it came anyway, war that is, on July 28, 1914, just a few months after he had begun. The Planets made its premiere on September 29, 1918, just a few weeks before the war ended.

Mars was on people's minds in those years. It all began with Giovanni Schiaparelli's observations of what he called canali on the surface of the Red Planet in 1877. Percival Lowell picked up the ball and ran with it in the early 1890s with his own observations of an intricate webwork of canals, as well as other features on Mars. He wrote about these things in three books, Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). His visions of Mars endured for generations, even into the 1960s and '70s.

H.G. Wells carried Lowell's interpretation to a logical and terrifying conclusion in The War of the Worlds (1897, 1898). Finally there came along a lowly pulp story, "Under the Moons of Mars" by Norman Bean, aka Edgar Rice Burroughs, serialized in The All-Story beginning 109 years ago this month, in February 1912. His story was published in book form as A Princess of Mars in 1917. Since then, gazillions of young fans have wanted to be his hero, John Carter, and have fallen in love with Burroughs' princess, Dejah Thoris.

Gustav Holst was influenced by astrology, not pulp fiction, but that hasn't stopped anybody from giving his record covers the science fiction treatment. Here are a few of them. I saved the most science-fiction-y--and the only scandalous one among them--for last.

That looks enough like Mars in the background for this image to earn its place as first in this series. In the foreground is an aerial view of the current state of Texas.

I like these highly stylized versions of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. The faces of Jupiter and Mars look almost like those of living beings. And Mars here is the Mars of the popular imagination, Percival Lowell's Mars with its canals and oases. 

Here's a version done by the great space artist Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986). Entitled Saturn as Seen from Iapetus, it appeared in the book The Conquest of Space by Willy Ley (1949) and before that in Life magazine. The difference is that the image here is flipped for some reason, maybe to make Saturn read better in visual terms: as your eye drifts across the image, it can ride the ramp of Saturn's rings to reach the title "The Planets."

This is a pretty small picture, but I can still detect a swipe . . .

The picture on the right is by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, that on the left by Margaret Brundage. I've showed this juxtaposition before in "Brundage and Ingres," dated April 4, 2019, and accessible by clicking here.

Chesley Bonestell seems to have swiped Ingres' painting, too. See the endpapers of The Art of Chesley Bonestell by Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III (2001) for that and for another depiction of Percival Lowell's Mars.

This version of The Planets is supposed to have been banned. You can kind of see why. Comic strip fans will recognize the more fully dressed of these two figures as a repurposed Flash Gordon. Here's another one: 

On the cover of the hardbound edition of The Best of C.L. Moore (1975). The figure on the left is the Shambleau from the story of the same name. If you haven't read "Shambleau" yet, you should. Those who have read it know that it takes place on Mars, the Red Planet and Bringer of War. Anyway, one of these images was banned while the other was not. Go figure. The art, by the way, is by Chet Jezierski (b. 1947). 

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

  1. The only reason I can see to ban that album cover is its monumental cheesiness.