Escape from Earth: Raquel Forner’s Space Paintings

If the iconic NASA astronaut is a confident (male) neo-colonist, Forner’s Astronauts are infantile, unprotected, vulnerable.

“Man Will Conquer Space Soon,” announced former–Nazi engineer Wernher von Braun’s influential 1950s series of articles in Collier’s. Von Braun’s words encapsulated the mood of the time, which combined techno-utopianism with confident Cold War imperial ambition.1 But so did the images that accompanied his articles, and, indeed, seemed to be everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s (thanks to SF paperback covers, comic books, and NASA publicity campaigns): wheeled space stations, propulsive, sleek spaceships on the move, the mechanical shapes characterized by confident, smooth lines, often foregrounded by earth and stars looming in the background. Think Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Human beings are often absent or tiny, subsumed within the giant machinery. If human figures are visible, they’re typically men, pictured either as astronauts cocooned safely in state of the art spacesuits, or as space colonists strolling planetary utopias. As Fred Scharmen observes in Space Settlements—his recent book about artistic depictions of potential colonies of human beings on other planets (with a particular focus on painters who often worked in collaboration with NASA engineers and architects)—future “space natives” tended to be imagined, and, crucially, pictured, as “productive, young, urban, capitalist, Western technological subjects.”2

A radically different vision of outer space is offered up at Raquel Forner: Revelaciones espaciales (Space Revelations), 1957–1987, in Buenos Aires’ Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes this spring. I walked into the show with no foreknowledge—I’d never heard of the artist—and was thrilled by a gorgeously realized, vividly alive, slightly bonkers, feminist epic sci-fi vision in oil paint. The show featured a series of dozens of paintings narrating a wildly imaginative story of mankind’s exploration of space, and the species’ transformation into new shapes and capacities in this strange environment.

In almost every respect, her work offers an exhilarating inversion of the reigning conventions for space art. Rather than a masculinist frontier, what if space were a womb? Or an extension of Latin American politics? Forner seems to ask: if we inhabit such new worlds, in what ways might our modes of seeing expand, multiply, transform? And more broadly, how will our earthly preoccupations—our working logics of gender, trade and exchange, perception, love, conflict—metamorphize?

Relatively little known in the United States, with only a few of her works held in US collections, Forner was born in Buenos Aires in 1902 and, like many Latin American artists of the time, traveled to Paris—where she lived for two years beginning in 1929, before returning to Argentina to imbibe the lessons of an emerging visual modernism and surrealism.3 Her early work offers little hint of the turn taken by the later space paintings collected in the new show. In her Serie de España (Spain Series, 1937–1939) and El drama (The Drama Series, 1939–1946), Forner associated her work with the international antifascist Popular Front as she depicted war, suffering, endurance, and resistance. As critic Diana B. Wechsler has observed, Forner in these paintings produced “powerfully expressive iconography focused on images of women as protagonists.”

Forner declared, “I need my painting to be a dramatic echo of the moment I live in,” about Mujeres del mundo (Women of the World) in 1938, an allegorical composition depicting the aftermath of a village bombing, filled with women crying or covering their faces—one of many of her works in this period responding directly to the Spanish Civil War, and that can’t help but bring to mind Picasso’s Guernica, completed the previous year.4

Given the origins of Forner’s work in a matrix of engagé 1930s–1940s social realism, allegory, and activist response to the tragedies of 20th-century wars, her turn towards outer space in the late 1950s must have come as a surprise to those who knew her work. At that time, painting spacemen and creatures with tentacles would likely not have seemed a smart or sophisticated career move. Hardly the best way to get more of one’s work into the Museum of Modern Art (which had by this time acquired one painting of Forner’s, her sober 1942 war allegory Desolation). Yet if we keep in mind Forner’s declaration about needing her painting to “dramatically” reflect its moment, we can see the logic of her new approach.

Forner explains that she began the Space Series in response to the launching of Sputnik and the inauguration of the international Space Race in 1957: “The thought that man was trying to distance himself from his planet in search of other worlds, trying to delve into the mystery and looking for an answer to his eternal question, moved me deeply.”5 Her new protagonist, she explains, the astronaut or the “man of space” (as opposed to the “man of earth”), is a divided being: “My astronauts have half of their heads painted in gray, symbolizing the earth, and the other half in colors, symbolizing space, the future,” the potential of new planets.

Now that thousands of satellites casually orbit the earth, it can be easy to forget how monumental an event the launching of Sputnik seemed at the time. To Hannah Arendt, writing in the prologue to her 1958 The Human Condition, Sputnik was an event “second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom,” and one that emblematized to her a new human urge to escape not just earth but “the human condition” itself. Arendt suggests that the drive to escape (what was now seen as) the “imprisonment” of earth could mark a dangerous final step in the “emancipation and secularization of the modern world,” one that would constitute a “rebellion against human existence as it has been given.”6

Forner’s space paintings grapple with many of the same questions that Arendt posed regarding the epoch-defining new meanings of space exploration—although Forner approaches the possibility of a new human condition, beyond earth, with less pessimism and more playfulness than Arendt did. These paintings are strange, melancholy, funny, grotesque; goofy but also occasionally frightening. Forner depicts her “astronauts”—the term seeming to signify both literal astronauts and, more metaphorically, these new denizens of space—trying to find a place in unearthly atmospheres, their own bodies metamorphizing and sprouting new appendages and organs of perception. The shift in Forner’s work from the somber political social realism of the 1930s and 1940s to these colorfully vivid, brashly and even cartoonishly painted images, rooted in iconography of mass media, brings to mind the trajectory of Philip Guston’s career. Although for what it’s worth, Guston’s turn to his later “cartoonish” mode happened more than a decade later than Forner’s did.

Donna Haraway has argued that “the global fetus and the spherical whole earth” are twinned visual icons: even as both are emblems of the natural that “provoke yearning for … physical sensuousness,” both also “owe their existence as public objects to visualizing technologies” of the mid-20th century.7 She points out that “the visible fetus became a public object” with the famous 1965 Life magazine cover featuring a photograph of an intrauterine fetus, not long before the debut of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue and its iconic 1967 color cover photograph of earth. One pervasive aspect of Forner’s space paintings, which seem to riff on the same linkages that Haraway draws, is a sense of the space as womb-like, containing floating, androgynous beings with large heads, nearly always connected to long umbilical-like cords. Her astronauts, connected to one another, or to their home ship, by safety cords conveying air and sustenance, are inescapably fetus-like. Forner reimagines outer space as itself something like an amniotic sac.

If the iconic NASA astronaut or “space native” is a confident (male) neo-colonist exploring and conquering new territories, Forner’s astronauts are infantile, unprotected, vulnerable both physically and emotionally. Certain paintings depict scenes resembling child-birth. Take La caída (The Fall), in which a distressed-looking grey humanoid creature with six red nipples and an eye in one palm of her hand is painfully enclosed in a round sac; she appears in some sense both like a fetus, and a pregnant mother. Meanwhile, another creature approaches with a sharply pointed stick: presumably to release her, but is this an act of assistance or aggression? [Figure 1]

Figure 1. La Caída (The Fall), from the series The Astronauts, 1968. Oil on canvas, 120 x 160 cm, Collection Fundación Forner-Bigatti.

Another recurring topic in the paintings concerns the quest for and struggle over “piedras lunares” (moonstones). We see hints of primitive capitalism (re-)emerging when astronauts gather, hoard, or trade these stones, which appear to be the primary extractable resource in space. In Astronauta con piedra lunar I, [2] a happy-looking astronaut with a broad, sated smile clutches a large moonstone to his chest, delighted in his acquisition. In Disputa de la piedra lunar (Moonstone Dispute) [3], however, a ghostly humanoid astronaut also clutches a stone, but in this less harmonious scene, either one or two further-evolved astronauts painted in vivid oranges, greens and reds attempt to wrest the treasure away.

Figure 2. Astronauta con piedra lunar I (Astronaut with Moonstone), from the series Los astronautas (The Astronauts), 1966. Oil on canvas, 120 x 160 cm, Collection Fundación Forner-Bigatti.


Figure 3. Disputa de la piedra lunar (Moonstone Dispute), from the series Los astronautas (The Astronauts), 1969. Oil on canvas, 120 x 160 cm, Collection Fundación Forner-Bigatti.

In the wild Conquista de la piedra lunar [4], all-out war seems to have broken out over moonstones. A pale, more human-looking astronaut struggles for his prize with four or five other colorful creatures, all boasting tentacles and many eyes. Andrés Duprat, curator of this show, suggests that Forner in these paintings links her outer space scenarios to specifically Argentinian histories.8 The use of the term conquista in this painting certainly offers a clear hint to interpret this struggle over resources in the light of Latin American histories of the imperial conquest of natives on the part of aggressive new European arrivals. If the NASA paradigm tended to imagine a techno-utopian “man” conquering space in an imperial mission that often seems to want to pass itself off as at once universal, and implicitly in the service of the United States’ Cold War goals, Forner offers a distinctly Latin American reflection on the ways that space exploration might replicate longstanding hemispheric colonial histories.9

Figure 4. Conquista de la piedra lunar (Moonstone Conquest), from the series Los astronautas (The Astronauts), 1968. Oil on canvas, 120 x 160 cm, Collection Fundación Forner-Bigatti.

In some of the canvases from the early 1970s—post–moon landing—Forner also turns her attention specifically to outer space as an element of modern media experience. In Monstruo especial con testigos televados (Special Monster with Televised Witnesses) [5], a horse- or centaur-like creature rears a TV screen head, broadcasting or enclosing eight white heads—with four feet dangling down below the screen. Another colorful, perhaps female astronaut with four eyes is watching eagerly—presumably a figure for the mass-media spectator for whom the exploration of space is primarily riveting entertainment.

Figure 5. Monstruo especial con testigos televados (Special Monster with Televised Witnesses), from the series Mutaciones espaciales (Special Mutations), 1970–1971. Oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, collection Fundación Forner-Bigatti.

One conclusion seems inescapable from Forner’s series: extra-planetary life in other or “outer” spaces will appear and be perceived in ways we can now only try to imagine. Forner’s visual work can be considered as an analogue of the feminist science fiction that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, in novels that, like Forner’s paintings, ask what might change if the control of the technology of spaceflight were in different hands.10

If, as Arendt predicted, human nature must change beyond its original home on earth, could this lead to positive outcomes for those, including women and people of color, who have not always benefited from conventional norms of the “human?” Forner’s paintings seem to try to depict and also to perform an expansion of the visual field, or of the means of perception: in addition to the many tentacle-eyes of Conquista de la piedra lunar, or the four eyes of the TV viewer in Monstruo especial, for example, I count at least eleven painted eyes throughout Disputa de la piedra lunar. Some of these are located where one would expect to find them—in the heads of the astronaut and of the other creature(s)—but others are within the moonstone itself, or implanted in the astronaut’s thigh. Generally speaking, eyes can sprout almost anywhere here.

The paintings collected here for the most part represent a sharp break from Forner’s earlier work. There is one moving image, however, that, while painted in the same visual style as the other Astronaut paintings, in some respects seems to circle back to the topics and subject matter of Forter’s paintings from the 1930s and 1940s. Futuro acontecer (Future Happening) [6] from 1979 was painted several years into the brutal military junta that ruled Argentina, with US support, from 1976 to 1983. The complex canvas depicts, in my reading, some of the colorful, evolved astronauts of the future attempting to reach out to their earthly brethren, trapped within the earth’s surface. The earth-dwellers are grey, pallid, with devastated faces, somewhat like the women of Mujeres del mundo from 1938. Rivulets of blood stream among them, and only one earth-woman has managed to reach out a hand, marked with a stigmata, through the earth’s surface. Claire Rasmussen points out that in some of Forner’s space paintings, “future-humans have returned, bending time and space to give their less advanced selves a hand. They pass on color and knowledge, imparting a kind of mystical enlightenment to their still-maturing, Earth-bound cousins.”11

Figure 6. Futuro acontecer (Future Happening), from the series Apocalipsis en Planeta Tierra (Apocalypse on Planet Earth), 1979. Oil on canvas, 160 x 200 cm, item no. 8909, Collection Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In Futuro Acontecer, however, while the brightly colored future-dwellers do appear frantic to help in some way, they are helpless to prevent the terrible suffering on earth on the part of those unable to escape the planet’s hold.12

  1. Scharmen, Fred. Space Settlements (Columbia University Press, 2019), p. 255.
  2. Scharmen, Space Settlements, p. 172.
  3. Fundación Forner-Bigatti, “Cronología Biográfico Artística de Raquel Forner.”
  4. Wechsler, Diana B.  “Commentario sobre ‘El Drama.’” Raquel Forner: Revelaciones espaciales (Space Revelations), 1957–1987, curated by Marcelo E. Pacheco, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, November 30, 2022–March 12, 2023.
  5. Gallery wall text, trans. Steven Wagschal.Raquel Forner: Revelaciones espaciales (Space Revelations), 1957–1987.
  6. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2018), p. xxix.
  7. Donna Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order,” Feminist Review, no. 55, Consuming Cultures (Spring, 1997), pp. 22–72.
  8. Gallery wall text, trans. Steven Wagschal. Raquel Forner: Revelaciones espaciales (Space Revelations), 1957–1987.
  9. Paraguay’s Carlos Colombino created wood reliefs in the 1960s that did something similar.
  10. See, for example, Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos novels (1979–83).
  11. Rasmussen, Claire. “Creativity in the Space Age: Raquel Forner’s Vision of Interconnection,” National Air and Space Museum Stories (blog), October 10, 2021.
  12. My thanks to Sarah Pearce, John Plotz, Rebekah Sheldon, and the Public Books editorial team for helpful comments and suggestions on this essay.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. Artwork courtesy Fundación Forner-Bigatti and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. ©The artist. All photographs courtesy of the author.