Friday, September 05, 2008

Alexei Leonov: A Soul in Space

Is it the Russian soul that leads that country's people to produce romantic poets, writers and artists? Whatever the reason, Alexei Leonov is one who has been captured by his motherland's emotional embrace.

As a cosmonaut, Leonov has directly participated in many of Russia's (formerly the Soviet Union's) space flight firsts. As pictured above, Leonov was the first human to walk in space on Voskhod 2. General Leonov also trained for the first Russian lunar landing prior to the program's cancellation in the 1970's.

In what was maybe his finest moment, Alexei was the commander of the Russian half of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission in 1975. This mission represented the first international cooperative flight between the two former rivals (USSR and USA) in the race to the Moon.

Already an accomplished artist on both Earth and in space, Alexei brought colored pencils with him on the ASTP flight. He drew a series of sketches of the crew of both spacecraft (Soyuz and Apollo) as well as a self portrait during the mission.

For his work in space, Alexei Leonov was awarded the "Hero of the Soviet Union" twice as well as the "Order of Lenin." He is a true hero in the history of spaceflight.

As an artist, Alexei has risen to become one of the best known space artists in the world. His works have been published in many books such as "In the Stream of Stars," "Wait for Us, Stars" and his own book, "Earth and Space Painting." Leonov is a member of the Cosmic Group of the USSR Artist Union and International Association of Astronomical Artists. He has participated in several space art workshops throughout the world. His works have been exhibited in such institutions as the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

For his work as an artist, Alexei Leonov has been awarded the prestigious IAAA Lucien Rudaux Memorial Award and has been inducted into the International Association of Astronomical Artists' Hall of Fame.

In Russia, Leonov is a sought after designer of stamps. I was lucky to procure the above painting which was produced for a 15th anniversary commemorative stamp display at auction in 1999. The work displays Alexei's famous spacewalk. The painting shows him over Italy during his time outside his spacecraft. The work includes his trademark sun with its bright red corona.

In 1980, Fleetwood published the first spacewalk stamp commemorative in a two page limited edition binder.

I had the honor of meeting Alexei Leonov in September of 2004 in Los Angeles. I brought the spacewalk painting with me on the trip. I showed Alexei the painting and he smiled and said "Da" ("Yes" in Russian) . He re-signed the painting and then posed with it for a photograph. Francis French recalled that Leonov then took the painting back and remarqued the painting with a floating cosmonaut in the bottom margin next to his signature.

I remember that LA show in 2004, because of Alexei. During the annual banquet, Alexei rose to the podium and gave a wonderful speech. During that speech, where he said that his English was really, "sixteen words that I just rearrange," he proceeded to give a heartfelt tribute to the early spacefarers as he looked to Gordon Cooper. Alexei ended the tribute with a step down from the podium and gave an ill Gordon Cooper a great big bear hug. There was not a dry eye in the house. Gordo passed away the next month. That was my introduction to Alexei Leonov, the romantic.

Just recently I was able to procure some early watercolors from a series of paintings that Alexei did of life in early Baikonur. These three watercolors were later published in a book written by Leonov and Andrei Sokolov titled, "Life Among Stars."

Francis French and Colin Burgess refer to these watercolors in their book, "Into That Silent Sea." I recently asked Francis about the history of these works. Francis advised me that Leonov's book, "Life Among Stars," published each painting with an explanation. The above painting titled "Voskhod 2 on Start" has a caption that reads "Alexei Leonov perfectly remembers his first space flight and surely the parting words of the Chief Designer." The person that Voskhod Commander, Belyayev, and Pilot, Leonov, are talking to is Sergei Korolev, the mastermind behind the Soviet Union's space program. Korolev was deemed so important to the Soviet space program that he was considered a top secret by the government and could only be referred to as the "Chief Designer" in any publications.

On the reverse of the painting, Leonov has written what appears to be the painting's title. "Bocxog-2" translates to "Voskhod 2" in English. The information that Francis supplied about these works surprised me and I am extremely appreciative to him for his help in researching these works.

The next two paintings from Leonov show the Baikonur cosmodrome while under construction.

This first work is titled "Construction of the Central Square." It shows work being done on buildings that would soon be part of the Soviet Union's, and later Russia's, manned space port.

This final watercolor depicts the completion of the Central Square and is, appropriately titled "The Construction is Completed."

The style of these watercolors are intriguing. The sepia tone used in these paintings is unusual for any of the works that I have seen from Leonov's collection or publications.

The page shown above is from the book "Life Among Stars" by Andrei Sokolov and Alexei Leonov. The page, from the chapter entitled "Tulips of Baikonur," presents all three watercolors on one page with captions. Unfortunately, the publisher did not do justice to color and tonal qualities of Leonov's work in these reprints of the paintings for the book.

Alexei also produced paintings in collaboration with Andrei Sokolov. Sokolov is considered "The Dean of Russian space artists." Andrei was the chairman of the Cosmos Group of the USSR Artist Union. Alexei and Andrei also co-authored several books on space art.

The above painting, that I acquired on the web (a first for me), co-signed by both Leonov and Sokolov, shows a Soyuz spacecraft in the process of docking with a manned "Salyut" space station.

Leonov, as an artist and as a cosmonaut, through his personality, inspiration and his work has captured some of the soul of space travel.

As a final personal story, I would again meet General Leonov in San Antonio in 2006. There he taught me a very valuable lesson. When it comes to vodka, never try to out drink a Russian. It was a lesson well learned.