Friday 8 September 2017

The science fiction art of Erik Nitsche

Erik Nitsche in 1996 at his
induction into the ADC hall of
fame (Image via

There was no Hugo Award given for Best Artist in 1957 at the 15th Worldcon in London. But since awards were given in other categories, there is no provision in the current rules of the WSFS constitution to award any Retro Hugos for that year. Which is a shame, because some of the finest work from one of the most innovative graphic designers of the era had started verging into the realm of science fiction in 1955 and 1956.

The name Erik Nitsche is rarely brought up in conversations of science fiction, but is well-known to historians of graphic design. In 1955, the Swiss-born designer had been hired by General Dynamics to create promotional imagery for the organization’s annual International Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (ICPUAE).

Given that many of these uses were purely theoretical (or classified military secrets), Nitsche had to conceptualize what these peaceful uses would look like. The results are a body of work that is deeply science fictional, imaginative, and well realized.

As he explained at the time, “I’m working with fantasy, with an idealistic image of the future, in which we are more or less involved.”

Servodynamics, 1956
Image via International Posters
A technically gifted painter and photographer, Nitsche was the son of two artists. He had studied in Switzerland, and worked as an advertising designer in Chicago. He had worked on Hollywood movies and on military brochures to help American soldiers recognize Nazi iconography during the Second World War.

Although he had been previously known for detailed and accurate representational work with Bauhaus influences, Nitsche produced dozens of poster designs from 1955-1960 that delved into the semi-abstract and conceptual.

His first dozen posters — produced for the first ICPUAE held in 1955 in Geneva — were vivid and bold works that offered visions of atomic-powered space planes (Astrodynamics, 1955) and genetic engineering (Radiation Dynamics, 1955). For the second ICPUAE in Washington in 1956, Nitsche’s vision was refined as he imagined the manipulation of the very basic forces of the universe (Basic Forces, 1956 and Servodynamics, 1956).

Nitsche’s understanding of the future is aligned with that of the technocratic school of hard science fiction. One can draw a straight line between Heinlein’s electro-gravatic technology from the novel Sixth Column and the way the very forces of nature bend to humanity’s will in Nitsche’s Atoms For Peace (1955).
Worlds Without End, 1958
Image via

Although in his later career he returned to more formal works, I would argue that Erik Nitsche is a name that belongs alongside those of Frank Kelly Freas, Virgil Finlay, and Ed Emshwiller as one of the greatest artists of science fiction.

His contributions to the genre are important. If there’s ever a decision to offer a 1957 Retro Hugo for Best Artist, it would be a good chance to recognize his contributions to the genre.

A selection of some of Erik Nitsche work.
Image via Pinterest

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