Portraits of the Mushroom Cloud, 1946 – 1990

Exhibits / March 13, 2018

Object Name: Mushroom cloud illustrations
Maker and Year: Various artists, 1945-1990
Object Type: Illustrations/paintings
Description: (Richard McKenna)

From the moment atomic weapons were first inflicted on the planet in 1945, the mushroom cloud became one of the defining motifs of the second half of the 20th century, assuming an almost supernatural significance that would only increase over time. It might seem paradoxical to speak about serendipity in the case of something that has been the cause of so much misery, but it’s hard to imagine nuclear weapons occupying quite the same space in the human race’s imagination had their effects not taken such a recognizable shape. We might almost say that the mushroom cloud was the logo that, for forty-odd years, helped shape and maintain brand awareness for the principal product of the two competing multinationals that dominated the market: nuclear war.

Mushroom clouds are formed when the fireball of a very large explosion rises into the air and the action between the lighter and denser gasses in the cloud creates instability—like that inside a lava lamp—causing debris to be sucked up from the ground, creating the mushroom’s “stalk.” Observers of the first nuclear explosions—the Trinity nuclear test and Hiroshima explosion of 1945 and the Bikini atoll tests of 1946—evoked domes, parasols, raspberries, brains, parachutes, and even cauliflowers as they groped for an adequate simile to do justice to what they had seen. In the end, though, it was the mysterious and cryptic fungus that prevailed and provided the phenomenon with its name. Mankind and mushroom have an ambiguous rapport that stretches back into prehistory, and the mushroom features in folklore and mythology worldwide: poisonous and nourishing, neither plant nor animal, it can represent both the spontaneous appearance of life and sudden, atrocious death, and it enjoys links with both the supernatural and the psychedelic.

In the 1946 poem of the same name (written in imitation of the medieval alliterative verse he had studied under J.R.R. Tolkien), W. H. Auden dubbed the new era “The Age of Anxiety,” and the same year, Charles Bittinger was one of the first artists to immortalize its symbol in paint. Bittinger, who had abandoned a career in science for the arts before working in the U.S. Naval Camouflage Section in both world wars, was one of several artists the Navy invited to paint the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. His mushrooms are white, vaporous affairs, like that which can be seen in British artist Weaver Hawkins‘ Atomic Power, painted the following year.

This conception of the mushroom cloud as a smoky, vaporous and (natch) cloudy affair can also be seen in Salvador Dali’s 1947 Three Sphinxes of Bikini, inspired by the same tests. The mushroom clouds in Dali’s Sphinxes point to another resemblance: the tree. Providing shelter, shade, fuel, construction materials, and food, trees and “trees of life” figure prominently in myth right back to the third millennium BCE Adam and Eve cylinder seal found in Mesopotamia. Perhaps it was this combination of humanity’s shared symbolic heritage of mushrooms, trees and, of course, clouds that helped the mushroom cloud acquire its quasi-mystical character.

Perhaps deterred by the overt embodiment of its own metaphoric power—or perhaps because it was already being done to death by the lowly pulps—the world of fine arts abandoned the mushroom cloud after a a brief blush of interest, leaving it in the hands of commercial illustrators, who planted it inside and outside countless books, magazines, comic books, and record covers. As time passed, depictions of the cloud mutated along with nuclear weapons technology itself and the political development of mutually assured destruction: Chesley Bonestell’s cover for the August 5th, 1950 edition of Collier’s magazine provided an unusual alternate interpretation of its subject matter that looked more like a fireball atop a volcano than a mushroom, while David Pattee’s cover for Astounding Science Fiction magazine the same year showed the mushroom in more recognizable form. The mushroom’s “cloudiness” continued to dominate, and around 1960 the symbol assumed the sharper outlines of the archetypal mushroom. As it moved into the ’70s, though, the cloud—like the times—grew darker and was often lit from within, like the example on the cover of Flying Buffalo’s Nuclear War card game. As the decade drew to a close, the emphasis was often upon these hellish infernos raging within the mushroom cloud’s “cap.” Before, it had been sometimes rendered as a fireball, frightening but comprehensible, while now it increasingly glowed with unearthly light like that shown in visionary artist Alex Grey‘s 1980 Nuclear Crucifixion, which also highlighted the cloud’s odd resemblance to the cross.

As the arms race escalated during the early 1980s, images of mushroom clouds became increasingly luminous, as though adapting to the millenarian mood of the times. Smooth, flattened dome-like forms resembling those seen in the French nuclear tests carried out in Mururoa in 1970 began to appear, far removed from the early images of a smoky stalk topped by a numinous mass. With their 1985 Adam Bomb, the Topps Company’s Garbage Pail Kids trading cards produced a surprisingly enduring image of the “classic” mushroom cloud, but, as the decade progressed and international geopolitics shifted once more, mushroom clouds began to change form again, becoming now almost abstract assemblages of rings and blastospheres rendered in blinding, divine light: David Mattingly’s cover for Brad Ferguson’s 1990 The World Next Door provides a good example. The mushroom cloud had completed its transformation into pure metaphor.

With its array of vast, unearthly forms looming like strange deities over an awestruck humanity, the mushroom cloud was as beautiful as it was terrible. In retrospect, it is clear that almost from the first, the mushroom cloud was—like its fungal namesake—an ambivalent symbol, suggesting both fiery cleansing but also, somehow, rebirth. In a way, those of us who grew up in the relatively secular age following the Second World War were perhaps fortunate in that our possible apocalypses were so knowable, limited in number, and, to some extent, even familiar. Despite the terrible loss of life nuclear detonations inflicted in 1945 and beyond, in comparison with the multiple, incomprehensible threats of the increasingly bewildering world of today, the mushroom cloud seems almost reassuring.

5 thoughts on “Portraits of the Mushroom Cloud, 1946 – 1990

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