Life on Mars and languages of extra-terrestrial civilizations. Chief exhibits of the Museum of Cosmonautics

Life on Mars and languages of extra-terrestrial civilizations. Chief exhibits of the Museum of Cosmonautics
As we study graphic works by Soviet and Russian space painters, we learn a little about what scientists think about the existence of Atlantis, life on other planets and how to convey a message to their possible inhabitants.

The Museum of Cosmonautics has opened 'In Search of the Future' exhibition of graphic art. On display are works by Nadezhda Devisheva, Sergey Geta, Viktor Shmokhin, Anatoly Veselov, Igor Orlov and other Soviet and Russian painters. The curator Polina Lysakova has selected space etchings and lithographs from the museum’s holdings. Read about the five most interesting exhibits in the joint article by mos.ru and Mosgortur.  

'Traces of Eternity' by Genrikh Stopa (1988)

The painter Genrikh Stopa (1936-2015) belongs to the generation of Soviet artists who started to deviate from social realism. Space dominated in his creative endeavours. One of the key works on this subject is his picture 'Traces of Eternity.' It features astronauts examining the deserted futuristic structures left behind by a once advanced extra-terrestrial civilization. They look quite tiny at the foot of colossal buildings.  

The search for brothers in mind or a proof of their existence in the past, and a collision with them is one of the key plots of the world’s fantastic fiction. Mars figures as the most likely place of extra-terrestrials' habitation. Science fiction authors populate the Red Planet with humanoids, while lovers of conspiracy theories call it the homeland of the vanished high-technology civilization that had left multiple traces on Earth.

Some scientists believe that such ideas are not totally groundless: at one point there could be conditions on Mars suitable for the origin of life. Around four billion years ago, the amount of hydrogen in the planet’s crust was comparable to that on Earth today. Two and a half billion years ago, the climate on Mars started to change abruptly, which rendered the planet lifeless.

The latest investigations show that the content of methane in Mars’s atmosphere changes periodically. The last powerful outburst of this gas was registered by the Curiosity Mars rover in June 2019. On Earth, methane is nearly always of organic origin, i.e., it is emitted by bacteria. This discovery corroborates the theory that life could exist or exists on Mars, at least in the simplest of forms.

'The Contact Problem' by Sergey Geta (1979)

The search for a language that could be used for conversing with representatives of an extra-terrestrial civilization is another important issue that always drew science fiction authors’ attention. It continues to interest them to this day. Remember the recent film 'Arrival' by Denis Villeneuve (2016) that won eight Oscars. The chief female character of the film and of a story by the US author Ted Chiang that served as a scenario is a research linguist who established a contact with the formidable extra-terrestrial reason and prevented an interplanetary war.

The 'In Search of the Future' exposition presents this theme with the etching 'The Contact Problem' by the painter Sergey Geta (born in 1951). In the centre of the picture is a researcher who seeks, amidst the variety of human language elements and cultural heritage, a universal key that would unlock the door to communication between Earthmen and inhabitants of other planets.

The search for this universal language intrigues not only artists. As early as the 17th century, the English scientist John Wilkins proposed creating it based on mathematical rules. In the 20th century, the Dutch professor Hans Freudenthal fostered his ideas. In 1960, soon after the launch of the Earth’s first man-made satellite, he developed a universal artificial language, Lincos, based on the simplest mathematical equations. Using this language, the scientists coded and sent into space several messages, something like a Lincos textbook for extra-terrestrials.

'The Discovery of Atlantis' by Nikolai Grishin (1970s)

The lovers of conspiracy theories are interested, among other things, in Atlantis, an island state that suddenly went underwater along with all its inhabitants. One of the first to mention it was the ancient Greek historian Hellanicus. His compatriot Plato subsequently described at length in 'Timaeus' and 'Critias' dialogues a war waged by Athens against the mythical Atlantis, a rich and powerful country. Plato even indicated the approximate date of the catastrophe, '9,000 years ago', i.e., in 9500 B.C.  

Did Atlantis really exist or is it just a myth? The arguments about this continue to this day. The researchers of Atlantis sought for the lost island all over the planet, from Northern Europe to South America, but the mystery remains unsolved.

The Soviet painter Nikolai Grishin (1921-1985) created illustrations to numerous books of science fiction by national and foreign authors. He worked with publications of Stanislaw Lem and Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexei Tolstoy and Herbert Wells. The chief characters of his illustrations were often researchers of space and oceanic depths. In his work 'The Discovery of Atlantis,' he combined two favourite subjects, asking a question – what if Atlantis is found some day by an astronaut?      

'Conquering Space for the Good of Mankind' by Viktor Shmokhin (1985)

Space is one of the key subjects for Moscow’s graphic artist Viktor Shmokhin (born in 1940). The Museum of Cosmonautics’ holdings keep many of his works that combine space motifs with the Russian avant-garde. For example, in 'Conquering Space for the Good of Mankind' one can clearly see the influence of suprematist compositions of Kazimir Malevich, while a hovering figure of an astronaut resembles characters from Marc Chagall’s picture 'Over the Town.'

Shmokhin specializes in lithography. To create artworks in this technique the artists use stone (usually compact limestone) on which they cut each part of a future work of art. After that, they apply paint to the prepared surface and make an impression.     

'Many underrate printed graphics. But in point of fact this is a laborious and sophisticated process requiring from the artist a stoic patience and meticulous attention,' said Polina Lysakova, the curator of the 'In Search of the Future' exhibition.

'16th Century. Dreams of the Future' by Vadim Karpov (1975)

Some artworks presented at the Museum of Cosmonautics not only look into the future or raise the burning issues of today, but also study the past. Vadim Karpov (1931-2014) dedicated his picture '16th Century. Dreams of the Future' to the Renaissance era, the time of upsurge in arts and rapid progress of science.

One of the chief ideas of the Renaissance era was the theory of heliocentrism, according to which the Sun is the central celestial body with planets rotating around it. This concept was first voiced as early as the ancient times, but it was then rejected under the pressure of the geocentric theory that set the Earth into the centre of the Universe. The chief propagator of heliocentrism during the Renaissance was the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who in his work 'On Rotation of Celestial Bodies' developed the ideas of ancient Greeks. This Polish scientist’s work strongly influenced the contemporaries. So his research was continued, among others, by the Englishman Thomas Digges and the Italian Giordano Bruno.

In Vadim Karpov’s picture, Copernicus’s work became one of the rungs in the ladder leading to the sky, a metaphoric embodiment of the human thought that has worked since ancient times to the present day.   

One can see other pictures and ponder, together with their authors, over the future at the 'In search of the future' exhibition opened at the Museum of Cosmonautics.