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Why we are so fascinated by the Moon

Man and the Moon

The Moon lured humanity into its orbit a long time ago. A new exhibition in London chronicles a bewitching relationship

The Moon lured humanity into its orbit a long time ago. A new exhibition in London chronicles a bewitching relationship

Alex Colville | July 17th 2019

Gazing at the Moon is an eternal human activity, one of the few things uniting caveman, king and commuter. Each has found something different in that lambent face. For Li Po, a lonely Tang dynasty poet, the Moon was a much-needed drinking buddy. For Holly Golightly, who serenaded it during the “Moon River” scene of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, it was a “huckleberry friend” who could whisk her away from her fire escape and her sorrows. By pretending to control a well-timed lunar eclipe, Columbus recruited it to terrify Native Americans into submission. Mussolini superstitiously feared sleeping in its light, and hid from it behind tightly drawn blinds. 

It would be a challenge for any museum to chronicle the long, complicated relationship humanity has with the Moon, but the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London has done it. For the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the museum has placed relics from those nine remarkable days in July 1969 alongside cuneiform tablets, Ottoman pocket lunar-calendars, giant Victorian telescopes and instruments designed for India’s first lunar probe in 2008. This impressive exhibition tells the history of humanity’s fascination with this celestial body and looks to the future, as humans attempt once again to return to the Moon. 

The Moon was once the domain of the gods, who had placed this seemingly smooth orb in the heavens, the finishing touch to a perfectly ordered creation. The red of the blood Moon was a sign of divine imbalance that only humanity could correct: the Chinese banged mirrors, the Inca shouted and the Romans frantically waved burning torches. In later ages when “progress” became a watchword, the Moon was colonised by Promethean dreams. Galileo swivelled his new telescope on the Moon in 1609, finding not perfect smoothness but chaotic crags and craters. It became a world to be lived on like any other, a place that could conceivably be travelled to, by beanstalk, catapult or geese, as the heroes of novels did, or in the latest inventions like hot-air balloons and giant cannon. Reaching out to it became almost an instinct, an act that confirmed humanity’s intelligence and immortality. “From the moment the first flint was flaked this landing was merely a matter of time,” wrote WH Auden in 1969. 

Today, a gaggle of countries and companies plan to return to the Moon. Shimizu Corporation, a Japanese engineering firm, thinks it can solve the global energy crisis by assembling a belt of solar panels around the lunar equator, a shiny black girdle visible from our planet by 2035. As I strolled around “The Moon”, though, I couldn’t help feeling that man has gained more in dreaming about our celestial neighbour than it will by exploiting it.

“I want! I want!” (1793) by William Blake

Opening the exhibition is a tiny print by William Blake. A small human figure is poised to scale the rungs of a giant ladder, a symbol of man’s ingenuity, ambition and bravery, and a foreshadowing of travels to come. Yet the image is tinged with ambiguity. “I want! I want!” could be a heroic statement of purpose or the cries of a spoilt child. Will the superhuman effort of getting to the Moon be compensated by what is found there? Is the Moon the final destination, or nothing more than a ledge propping up the ladder by which humanity begins its ascent into the void? For Blake, there was a dark side to the lunar dream – a place where hubris lurked. 

 

“Tale of Genji” from “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon” (1886) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Over six years, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, a Japanese artist of the Meiji period, created a series of images from episodes in Japanese and Chinese fiction and history, all associated with different phases of the Moon. This print conjures a famous event in the “Tale of Genji” an 11th-century work of fiction, in which the eponymous hero falls in love with a mysterious aristocratic lady, whom Genji names “Yugao”, after the white evening blossom that grows across her dilapidated house. She is tragically murdered by the spirit of one of his ex-lovers and dies in his arms. Here Yoshitoshi renders her as a ghostly figure wreathed by white Yugao flowers and illuminated by a full Moon, symbolic of nostalgia. Meiji Japan was shifting beyond all recognition in its effort to modernise. But no matter what changed, the Moon was always there. 

 

“The Moon” (1787) by John Russell

By day, John Russell painted the likenesses of London elites. By night, he whiled away the hours bent over a telescope, sketching the Moon under different light conditions. Cartographers were making increasingly precise charts of the lunar surface, but Russell believed that only an artist could capture the orb’s lustrous character. He married attention to detail – Russell was fascinated with the craters and contours of the Moon – with an eye for colour. His use of pastels gives his lines the blurred softness which inspired Flaubert to liken the Moon to “a rounded fragment of ice”. Even though Russell’s drawings of the Moon, somewhere between a map and a portrait, are so evocative, he was criticised for neglecting his earthly sitters, and his Moon drawings were eventually forgotten. 

 

Poster for “Frau im Mond” (Woman in the Moon) (1929)

In the early 20th century, artists and scientists worked together to shape the space age. For his 1929 film, “Frau im Mond” (Woman in the Moon), German director Fritz Lang employed rocket scientists as consultants. The film was the first realistic depiction in the cinema of what it might be like to send men (and one woman) to the Moon. The rocket launch was an exciting novelty, and the countdown from ten to zero so dramatic, it was adopted by NASA. Lang didn’t get everything right. When the actors landed on the Moon, they strutted around a breathable Alpine world in plus-fours. But Lang’s rocket was so accurate that, by 1937, the Nazis had banned the international distribution of the film for fear that their enemies would deduce how to assemble the regime’s prized V2 rocket.  

 

Buzz Aldrin beside the US flag during Apollo 11 (1969)

“It has a stark beauty all its own.” That was Neil Armstrong’s conclusion as he took his first small step onto the Moon’s surface. Thanks to the lack of atmosphere, the pictures that he took, of the desert plain around him, are remarkably sharp. The black of the sky and the shadows was so dense a new photographic ink had to be developed to properly convey it. Although in this photograph the thick layer of dust is the colour of asphalt, it changed from a snowy white to a dull grey depending on the astronaut’s position in relation to the sun. The hard bedrock beneath meant the two astronauts struggled to plant the US flag, supposedly bought last minute at a department store for $5. Sticking out his thumb to cover the blue marble of the Earth, Armstrong suddenly felt “really, really small”. 

As with any momentous advance in human history, some joyously looked to the future while others mourned what had been lost. “The heavens have become part of man’s world,” announced Richard Nixon. But for playwright Tom Stoppard it was a desecration; “chumping around this symbol in size-ten boots” was to trample on the human condition. The two astronauts returned to the module after just two and a half hours. At take-off, the thrust of the rockets blew the flag over. In theory, solar radiation has since bleached the flag white. 

 

“Botonguru” from “The Afronauts” (2012) by Cristina de Middel

In 1964, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a science teacher from newly independent Zambia who dreamed of sending the first Africans to the Moon, launched the Zambian Space Programme. However, Nkoloso lacked funding and expertise: to simulate the experience of zero gravity, an astronaut was placed in an oil drum and rolled down a hill. The programme never achieved lift off but something about its joyful optimism struck a chord with Cristina de Middel, a contemporary Spanish artist. In 2012, she produced “The Afronauts”, a series of photographs, drawings and sculptures which reimagined the efforts of Nkoloso and his crew. Here, a Zambian man operates what may be a makeshift Mission Control; his eyes are closed, as if he is lost in a reverie. In 1962, John F. Kennedy expressed the resolve of his nation when he said America chose to go to the Moon “because it is hard”. How much stronger are those who face even greater obstacles, but still shoot for the Moon anyway.

The Moon National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, until January 5th