We have all seen the Moon. In photographs, on film, and in the night sky. We have a pretty good idea of what it looks like. Rocky, grey, and craterous. Despite its mystery and distance, it is not unfamiliar. In fact, the Moon is an incredibly constant feature of our daily lives, a comforting presence, illuminating the darkness of our night sky.
In a sense, “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography,” an exhibition on view now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before. Sure, the photographs are clearer than what we can see with a naked eye, but what they show is exactly what we expect. Nor do the majority of the pieces featured in “Apollo’s Muse” display exceptional artistic talent.
Instead, the value of this exhibition comes from the story it tells. A story of discovery and unity—one that can’t be told through our day-to-day, isolated encounters with the Moon. The exhibition chronicles depictions of the Moon from the early seventeenth century to 2015, and is separated into four sections, “Mapping the Moon,” “Daydreams by Moonlight,” “Moonshot,” and “Art After Apollo.”
Some of the earliest and most important included works are Galileo Galilei’s 1610 etchings, executed while looking at the Moon through a homemade telescope. These etchings capture the Moon’s phases and topography, and they were the first efforts in the field of selenography, which would undergo significant scientific and artistic development in the coming century. The “Mapping the Moon” portion of the exhibition is particularly striking, not just for its artwork, but for its depictions of various scientific instruments and equipment. An 1880 photographic print by Gustavus W. Pach titled The Great Refractor shows a Harvard telescope that, at twenty-two feet, was the largest telescope in the United States from 1847 to 1867. Photographs like these ground the exhibit, showing not just representations of the Moon, but the worldly tools and processes that artists and scientists alike employ to bring the images to light.
The next section, entitled “Daydreams by Moonlight,” is dedicated to more fantastical representations of the Moon. The media in this portion of the exhibit vary much more widely than those of “Mapping the Moon.” There are photographs and sketches, yes, but also films, paintings, and postcards. A video screen mounted to one of the walls rotates through scenes of three films: George Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (1902), a fantastical first “depiction” of lunar travel on film; Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929), more beholden to scientific accuracy and with references to photographs included in the exhibit; and Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950), an examination of the political and economic aspects of space travel.
I stayed and watched the excerpts a few times, looking for similarities and differences. What I found was a trend that could be applied to all the artwork in the exhibit. The earlier works showed the Moon in a mysterious, even menacing light, but as time went on, depictions, made with newfound accuracy, became less fantastically ominous.
Befitting the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary this month, the most thrilling galleries were those dedicated to the July 1969 moon landing by the Apollo 11 team of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. It is hard not to be amazed by the monumentality of these photos, especially the ones that Neil Armstrong took of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface, standing next to the planted American flag or the lunar module. Everything—the lighting, the space suits, the equipment—looks straight out of science fiction.
The best perspectives, however, were in photographs of Earth taken from Apollos 8 and 17, titled Earthrise and Blue Marble respectively. A familiar excited feeling of insignificance came over me upon seeing these. What an odd sensation it is to be so small! But even the astronaut Bill Anders, who captured Earthrise, acknowledges that the value of the photograph comes more from its extraordinary and unprecedented perspective—our entire earth behind the foreground of the lunar surface—than any technical adeptness. In an interview with Forbes, he says, “Earthrise isn’t that good of a picture if you really look at it; it’s not quite in focus. Photographers are probably jealous it was picked as one of the top pictures of the twentieth century, but right place, right time!” And this seems to be the case with many of the photographs in this room. They are taken by astronauts and scientists, not artists and photographers. Does this add to the value of the works? Or take away from it? Is it more impressive that someone dedicated to studying space, not just capturing it, took these photographs? Or do they feel out of place in the Met?
I was still unsure when something in the back of the room—an old television and couch—caught my eye. The television was playing footage from the Moon landing in 1969. Strangers, people of all ages, crowded around to witness the historic event, almost as if it were happening in real time. The museumgoers had become part of the exhibit, embodying just how unifying the Moon can be.
Lastly, there is “Art After Apollo”. The atmosphere in this room is completely different: more space, more light, and even more variety than before in the media on display. The room presents a rich contrast from the dark excitement of “Moonshot,” the mystery of “Daydreams by Moonlight,” and the exactness of “Mapping the Moon.” Here I was impressed first with the art, then with the subject. Robert Raushenberg’s NASA-commissioned Sky Garden (Stoned Moon) (1969) certainly exudes a sense of wonder, but without the apprehensive mystery that seemed to charge all the art objects created before the Moon landing. Penelope Umbrico’s 2015 film Everyone’s Moon, a dizzying overlay of 1.1 million photographs of the same full moon, conveys a similar message of unity and understanding. The Moon is no longer something to be unsure of, but it is still fascinating.
“Apollo’s Muse” brings together some of the finest depictions of the Moon, and it does so in a way that strings together a rich narrative. Was I struck by any specific feats of artistic mastery? No, but it didn’t matter so much. With a subject as captivating and “far out” as the Moon, there is already enough by which to be amazed. So much so, I found myself moonstruck.