Fear and fascination in 1950s America: In the shadow of the Atomic bomb with Chesley Bonestell

Slavoj Žižek (referenced here recently) in an interesting – if not entirely convincing – column about mutually assured destruction and nuclear weapons on the inthesetimes site argues that:

Every power structure has to rely on an underlying implicit threat, i.e. whatever the official democratic rules and legal constraints may be, we can ultimately do whatever we want to you. In the 20th century, however, the nature of this link between power and the invisible threat that sustains it changed. Existing power structures no longer relied on their own fantasmatic projection of a potential, invisible threat in order to secure the hold over their subjects. Rather, the threat was externalized, displaced onto an Outside Enemy. It became the invisible (and, for that reason, all-powerful and omni-present) threat of this enemy that legitimized the existing power structure’s permanent state of emergency. Fascists invoked the threat of the Jewish conspiracy, Stalinists the threat of the class enemy, Americans the threat of Communism-all the way up to today’s “war on terror.” The threats posed by such an invisible enemy legitimizes the logic of the preemptive strike. Precisely because the threat is virtual, one cannot afford to wait for it to come. Rather, one must strike in advance, before it is too late. In other words, the omni-present invisible threat of Terror legitimizes the all too visible protective measures of defense-which, of course, are what pose the true threat to democracy and human rights (e.g., the London police’s recent execution of the innocent Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes).

The thesis about the external threat is interesting. Certainly US society was mobilised during the Cold War against a Communist threat. However that threat was nebulous. What was Communism and what purchase did it really have on the imagination of those in – say – the Mid-west? The threat was too abstract. Better by far then to focus it upon more immediate and tangible dangers. Žižek suggests that:

Classic power functioned as a threat that operated precisely by never actualizing itself, by always remaining a threatening gesture. Such functioning reached its climax in the Cold War, when the threat of mutual nuclear destruction had to remain a threat.

The problem being that nuclear war was, and to some degree remains, a rather abstract concept. The enormity of the effects of the weapons used is such that it would be difficult to describe them through visual imagery, which is perhaps why there is actually rather little in the way of films that deal directly with them. Instead the fear of nuclear war was sublimated into other catastrophes and horrors. That these were, in some instances at least, more unlikely than nuclear war perhaps served to dissipate the worst of that fear. And the flip side of that dynamic was a concentration on the positive benefits of nuclear technology. Power systems, space travel and such like.


Indeed the threat of nuclear war was often proposed to be one of the dynamics behind the increasing popularity of science fiction during the 1940s and early 1950s. While the plots of various films might only have a tangential link to actual science the effects of radiation were used as a convenient plot device. Giant ants mutated by atomic explosions featured in “Them!”. The Incredible Shrinking Man suffered likewise from irradiation. Other films dealt with the aftereffects of nuclear war such as On the Beach (based on the novel by Nevil Shute). In novels one of the most striking aspects of fiction from this period was the way in which nuclear war was treated as a certainty. Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov (consider his Pebble in the Sky), A.E. Van Vogt (his Empire of the Atom is explicit in this respect) and many other writers appeared to believe it was a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.

And while the reality of developing space flight subsumed some of these fears, in other ways it merely added to fears about the potential for nuclear war to spread into entirely new areas.

The visual imagery used during this period provides a remarkable insight into these hopes and fears. Chesley Bonestell was one of the leading exponents of what is now termed ‘space art’ managed to incorporate elements of both into his work. Bonestell, based in the US, originally studied architecture but dropped out and went to work as a designer and renderer. His work included the facade of the Chrysler Building, elements of the U.S. Supreme Court and various other significant works. Remarkably he also worked on the design of the Golden Gate Bridge. Attracted by Hollywood he worked on a range of of matte paintings for a number of films.

An interest in astronomy led to a series of paintings depicting the Solar System which were published in Life magazine. It’s worth noting the central role of Life and similar magazines in providing a vehicle for illustration and photography during the mid-century period. Acting as an adjunct to cinema and radio they were an effective medium of communication of news, social issues and advertising.

And the work produced by Bonestell was extremely popular in these magazines. An acquaintance of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, Bonestell worked in collaboration with him on a series of illustrations of potential future manned spaceflight. These images, published in Collier’s magazine, with a seeming degree of representational authenticity appeared to herald the space race. The careful and detailed depiction of nuclear powered spacecraft and space environments provided an imagery yet to be captured on film. Granted, to our eyes they may well appear almost archaic. The softness of the painted imagery is a world away from the hard edged photographic representation provided by NASA. Yet this imagery was in a very real sense ground breaking.


Yet Bonestell also captured the other face of this technological development. In a further series of images he provided a vision of major U.S. and European cities devastated by nuclear explosions.
These images eschew the sublimated comforts or terrors of 1950s science fiction horror movie posters or the sleek and beguiling imagery of a rocketship future.


Žižek’s concept of “Classic power function[ing] as a threat that operated precisely by never actualizing itself, by always remaining a threatening gesture” is in some sense made redundant by these images.


Instead they actualise the reality of nuclear warfare through their determined and forensic representationalism. The threat is made real, albeit distanced to near geographic limits by the scale. There is a viscerality to these images that even today in the context of CGI is quite remarkable. In part I would suggest this is due to the shock of recognition that they engender. This is Manhattan put to the flame. A clearly recognisable location that many of us have visited or worked in. And despite the fact that the paintings were produced in the 1950s the very nature of the nuclear inferno masks any hint of the specific modernity of the city in 2007. They could be then, this could be now.


And here they have a certain similarity with other images of the familiar reshaped by catastrophe. Consider the final sequence in Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston despairingly encounters the all too familiar structure of the Statue of Liberty on the beach of what he thought was an alien world. Yet that dislocation is decommissioned by the form of the film. It remains fiction – the actuality of a war detached by the sense that near geological epochs having passed.

Arguably there is an even greater contemporary resonance because we have indeed seen Manhattan, or at least one enormously recognisable part of it also put to the flame in recent times.


The Twin Towers [where – strangely enough I once worked in the basement mall many years ago] is now located firmly within the contemporary visual discourse even to the point of Art Spiegelman writing a comic about his personal experience of 9/11, while the US Government 9/11 Commission Report has been interpreted in the form of a comic book.


But the cartoon form, while enormously evocative, does not operate on quite the same level as the images produced by Bonestell. Their vivid immediacy is somehow energised to a greater extent by their form. Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised by this. Bonestell worked as an artist in many fields but some of his most significant work was on matte paintings for Citizen Kane amongst other films.

The cinematic urgency of the Manhattan paintings is a tribute to that expertise.

Oddly though there is a strangely quaint quality to the imagery, even to the very term “Atomic” bomb. The idea of global nuclear war is now almost unthinkable. The nuclear stockpiles have actually been reduced. Accident perhaps might lead to an exchange, but conflict leading to war? And so that fear, if not quite vanished, recede into a past probably unimaginable by many under 25. And more contemporary fears are – 9/11 excepted – less easily visualised. How does one represent a dirty bomb that uses radioactive materials, or a chemical or biological weapon? Perhaps the deserted streets of London in “28 Days Later” is the only way (although that film sits within a particular genre of British horror and science fiction, one that emphasises the domestic over the global). And ironically that, perhaps, vindicates in quite literal form Žižek’s proposition of the ‘invisible threat’.


Ciarán Swan

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