FRANK HERBERT CALLED HIM THE ONLY ARTIST TO HAVE VISITED DUNE. DECADES AFTER THEIR PUBLICATION IN OMNI, JOHN SCHOENHERR’S ILLUSTRATIONS ARE AS MELANCHOLY AND POWERFUL AS EVER.
If there’s anywhere the old axiom about judging a book by its cover holds true, it’s science fiction. Few authors and the artists employed to visualize their stories achieve a real dialogue; more often than not, throughout the history of science fiction, literature of real depth is sold with flashy aliens and cosmic exaggerations. An extraordinary illustrator, however, is capable of contributing to a piece of literature just as meaningfully as its author. In the case of an artist like John Schoenherr, he becomes the work’s joint architect–and leaves a mark no less indelible.
Schoenherr’s illustrations are among the most celebrated of science fiction artworks; he showed, like Richard M. Powers, that science fiction art could be mature and painterly, worlds away from the lurid pulp exaggerations the genre had cultivated since its inception. The first artist to tackle the desert planet Arrakis, his Dune illustrations in particular have become archetypes by which Frank Herbert’s universe is visualized.
Schoenherr was born in New York City in 1935, studied at the Art Students’ League, and graduated from the Pratt Institute in the late 1950s. After initial sales to magazines such as Infinity, Amazing, and other pulps of the day, he found a home in the pages of Astounding (later renamed Analog), arguably the most important magazine in the history of science fiction, under the reign of science fiction’s ur-editor, John W. Campbell.
I can envision no more perfect visual representation of my Dune world than John Schoenherr’s careful and accurate illustrations.
His partnership with Analog was where he was most visibly active. Illustrating Gordon R. Dickson, Clifford D. Simak and Anne McCaffrey, Schoenherr’s artwork dominated the covers and interiors of the magazine for almost two decades, continuing well into the early 1980s. During his tenure at Analog, he also produced full-color paperback covers for publishers such as Ace and Pyramid–covers of classic science fiction novels like Starship Troopers, The Stainless Steel Rat, and Galactic Patrol. By the early 1970s, he’d begun to explore new subjects, and found a second wave of critical acclaim for his animal paintings and children’s books. It was this subject matter that focused his attention until his death in 2010.
Schoenherr’s association with Dune had its genesis in the pages of Analog. He illustrated Herbert’s serialized stories: the three-part Dune World (December 1963 through to Februrary, 1964) and the five-part Prophet of Dune (January to May, 1965) with highly detailed scratchboards and acrylic drybrush drawings. It was this work that won him the coveted Hugo for best professional artist, an award for which he was nominated eleven times.
He revisited Dune again when Herbert’s third novel in the series, Children of Dune, was serialized in Analog in 1976, and again in 1978 for a handful of super-rare LP sleeves featuring excerpts from the novels read by Herbert on Caedmon Records (Sandworms of Dune, The Truths of Dune, Battles of Dune and Heretics of Dune) and most prominently; The Illustrated Dune (1978, Berkley Windhover), an almost legendary volume containing 33 black and white scratchboards and 8 full-color paintings. Reportedly, the paintings were commissioned separately, originally created for an even rarer collector’s item: the 1978 Dune Calendar.
OMNI generously exhibited this series of Schoenherr’s iconic Dune paintings in its July 1980 issue, including two not present in the actual book. The series of images seen here have never been reproduced in their entirety since their appearance in OMNI, and remain touchstones of the Dune universe. Sadly, and somewhat bizarrely, these remarkable paintings have lingered in relative obscurity. Although iconic to those in the know, the Dune acolyte must practice a little archaeology–time spent in musty bookshops or scouring online sources–to unearth these hidden treasures. Owning them is expensive, whether original (his 11×15” watercolor painting used on the 1967 Ace Dune paperback sold for $26,000 in 2011) or in regular book form. The publications in which they were presented have been out of print for three decades.
Schoenherr’s artwork perfectly corresponded with his subject matter: visionary, unique, extraordinary. His renditions are timeless and impressionistic while remaining so carefully drawn from Herbert’s descriptions that they become the perfect companion, an illuminating template for the reader intent on visualizing Herbert’s desolate world. Dune is a work of depth and often excruciating detail, but Schoenherr’s accompanying artwork is ambiguous and abstract. Devices, machinery and costumes are elegant in their simplicity. Its technologies are instantly recognizable, organic, and convincing, while still seeming like conventions of an environment set 21,000 years in the future. Utterly alien concepts are rendered fluently; 400 meter-long Sandworms erupt from the desert as though they always existed, and other demanding conceptions–the Ornithopter flying machines, Stillsuits, Sarduakar warriors and the 200 kilo Baron Harkonnen–leave little doubt as to their authenticity.
Admittedly, Schoenherr could be technologically unsophisticated–numerous 20th century mechanical parts hide, like Easter eggs, in his work–but as his emphasis was on form, not function, the results were more often than not unobtrusive. His timeless renditions of Arrakis are the perfect reader’s companion.
John Schoenherr’s artwork brought a sense of credibility to his medium, trading the lurid canvases of yesteryear for authoritative, atmospheric composition. At the height of his popularity, his association with Dune was as intimate as Herbert’s, helping to bring the world of Dune to life. Herbert once gave Schoenherr the ultimate praise: he called him “the only artist who has ever visited Dune.”