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Facts of Development From Aircraft to Space Exploration

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The possibility of manned flight had been a dream and fascination for centuries, with artists like Leonardo da Vinci depicting images of flying machines and inventors creating gliders and heavier-than-air flying machines as early as 1010 C.E. (White). It wasn’t until the 20th century that heavier-than-air-flying-machines would become a reality. After human flight was realized, nothing could stop its progression. It only took 69 years for aviation to evolve from the biplanes of the barnstorming era to spaceships of the space age. The artists whose works are displayed in Flying High: Aviation in Art from the Permanent Collection, pay tribute to the artists and innovators who propelled aviation forward and are responsible some of the most profound advancements in history. Utilizing works from the Freeman Gallery’s permanent collection, this exhibit highlights the evolution of aviation, from biplanes of the 1920s to the space age.

The golden-age of the barnstorming was perhaps one of the most exciting and innovative times in aviation history. Upwards of 7,000 Curtiss JN-4D “Jennys” and “Standard J-1s” were produced as training planes during WWI, with roughly 95 percent of American and Canadian pilots learning to fly on a “Jenny” (Glenn H. Curtiss Museum). After the war, the U.S. military sold surplus biplanes to the public for a fraction of the price in 1918. Suddenly planes were being used in new ways when aviation was previously only ever seen by the general public in connection to military use. Pilot training schools were opening up around the country and the first scheduled airmail service began using Curtiss Jennys on May 15, 1918, farmers started using biplanes for crop-dusting, and daredevil pilots, known as barnstormers, began traveling the country putting on performances. These stunt pilots would travel the country and perform tricks in front of a paying crowd. The stunts could be with the aircraft itself, like loop-the-loops or barrel rolls at dangerously low altitudes, or with the pilots, who would wing walk, jump from plane to plane, or play a tennis match on the wings. The stunts were dangerous, but barnstorming was successful in keeping aviation in the public eye. It also led to the development of plane-related safety regulations.

The 1920s were also full of experimentation with regard to the design and manufacturing of the aircraft. Surplus aircrafts were frequently altered by adding additional seats and switching out engines for more powerful ones. Over time, aircraft companies were producing powerful and more reliable planes that were designed to carry passengers and travel farther distances. This included the Ford Tri-Motor, which can be seen in Aron’s lithograph Ford. The Ford Tri-Motor was the largest and most reliable passenger aircraft of its time. It had three radial engines and could carry up to 11 passengers (Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor).

With the excitement of aviation growing throughout the world, the demand for aviation-themed art grew. Artists who were involved with the Cubist and Futurist movements were intrigued by aviation, as it allowed for an alternative perception of reality. These artists were enthralled with the idea of being free of the constraints of normal existence, and flight offered them the escape they needed. Representational artists were also moving to depict flight-related scenes (“Flight in Art and Song”). Landscapes, poster art, and illustrations of airplanes and airships participating in barnstorming or combat were sold to books and magazines. These illustrations were chosen over photography because artists could depict scenes in color that would be difficult or dangerous to get to, embellish a situation, change the landscape, or paint entirely imaginary scenes (Simmons). Both the excitement of the barnstorming and innovation of newer aircraft can be seen in the lithographs by Joyce Arons and her enthusiasm for this era is easily seen in her work. The biplanes of the barnstorming era are depicted in Dandelions, Frame 49, Rides, and Fly $3 and the progression of aircraft design can be seen in Ford. The soft colors used in her modest illustrations evoke a feeling of nostalgia for this thrilling and iconic time in aviation history.

Over time, engineers continued to develop planes that could handle different terrain. The lack of proper airfield led to the development of planes that could land on ships and water. The first successful seaplane was developed in 1911 by Glenn Curtiss, and eight years later, the first trans-Atlantic flight took place with a Navy-Curtiss flying boat. Eventually, planes with skis were developed in order to accommodate landing in the snowy terrain of the far north (O’Malley). With conventional aircraft, pilots were constrained by geography and the lack of properly designed airfields. By switching out the traditional landing gear for skis, pilots could land their plane on unprepared surfaces, making flight accessible to northern areas at any point in the year. This also allowed for increased tourism, as the possibility of seeing popular tourist destinations that were previously not accessible during the winter was exciting option. Pilots were able to sell tickets for scenic rides in the snowy winter months in addition to the spring, summer, and fall. Harry Schaare’s First Mountain Flying depicts a ski plane soaring past a snow-covered mountain in a serene scene. Schaare was a popular illustrator, whose works could be seen in various books and magazines like Readers Digest and Aviation Week. His interest in depicting aviation came from his time spent in the Air Corps during WWII and traveling with the U.S. Air Force as an artist.

Through the years, aviation kept progressing, and the need to go farther grew. While some aviation artists were still focused on portraying flight as it was, by the mid-30’s to late 40’s, a growing group of artists was beginning to depict aviation as it could be, focusing on space exploration. Space art was being shown in science fiction magazines but grew in popularity in the 1950’s when the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union fascinated the world. After the first lunar landing by the U.S. Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, the world’s focus and many artist’s influences had shifted to space exploration. Paul Van Hoeydunck’s lithographs Twilight Dream and Blue Rose and Red Sky show the artist’s own interpretation of space art. Van Hoeydunck’s passion for merging art and space exploration is clearly seen in his work. He is the first and only artist to have a sculpture on the moon. Fallen Astronaut, a small stylized aluminum figure that is meant to be an astronaut in a space suit, was placed on the moon by astronauts during the Apollo 15 mission on July 30, 1971.

The futuristic style of space art progressed into the 21st century, and as technology advanced, so did the way artists chose to portray their artwork. As science fiction turned to science fact, many space artists focused on creating realistic depictions of space flight by using images and videos provided by NASA as inspiration. Artist Julia Oldham uses a combination of digital media, photography, and hand-drawn figures to create both moving and unsettling stories. Oldham’s artwork is highly influenced by the scientific world, and she often collaborates with scientists to complete her work (Julia Oldham). Her video, Laika’s Lullaby, presents a tale of the Soviet space dog, Laika, who was one of the first animals to be launched into space in 1957. Laika’s story ended in tragedy as she succumbed to the extreme heat of the spacecraft. Later it was revealed that her ship, Sputnik 2, was not designed to be retrievable, so her doom was inevitable. The video art is almost haunting, and the combination of visual and music plays to the viewer’s empathy. This striking artwork focuses on the events of the mission through Laika’s perspective, while touching on the abuse and mistreatment of animals for mankind’s advancement (Jahn).

The innovation of manned flight has fascinated the world for centuries, and its influence on the art world is still as relevant today as it was in the early 20th century. The world’s fascination with the possibility of flying machines only increased with the progression from the first successful airplane to daredevil barnstormers to aircraft design experimentation and finally to space exploration. Flying High, Aviation in Art from the Permanent Collection aims to educate the public on this exciting time in history and the role art had in its progression. The artists and artworks displayed in this exhibition focus on various times in this progression, but all have the element of excitement that came with each advancement.

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