EXCLUSIVE: The breathtaking story of a statuette on the Moon

It is nearly a detective story. It features American astronauts, president Richard Nixon, human envy, greed. And on top of it one Belgian, the Moon and an aluminium figure.

Van Hoeydonck with CBS correspondent Walter Cronkite, who announced that Van Hoeydonck is an author of the statuette on the Moon. (Photo archives Paul van Hoeydonck)

I was in Brussels, standing in front of a black-and-white photograph. I didn’t think I was witnessing anything exceptional. Until I asked the curator of the exhibition why next to the striking pop-art objects and canvases, next to Warhol and Lichtenstein, they presented this carelessly framed old photograph picturing a silver object in the shape of a human being seemingly on the surface of some planet. My first impression was it looked like an amateur photomontage. A tall dark-haired curator rewarded my baffled inquiry with an even more baffled look. Our short conversation went like this:

Curator: You don’t know what this is?

Me: No. What is it?

Curator: This is a sculpture on the Moon!

Me: You mean a real one?

Curator: Yes.

Me: Seriously?!

Curator: Yes, it was created by a famous Belgian artist. You have really never heard about it?

No, I have not. And it didn’t seem to be a belated April Fools’ Day either. So… 45 years ago on the surface of the Moon, the serene observer of human toils, astronauts left a piece of art. A statuette. They named it The Fallen Astronaut and it was created by Paul Van Hoeydonck — so far probably the only inhabitant of the Earth who exhibits his work ‘outside’ the earth’s surface.

When I left the gallery later in the evening, I felt a bit ignorant. I had probably missed some information during my school days. I was walking in a cold drizzle and instead of watching my feet, I was gazing at the steel-grey clouds that were timidly hiding this remarkable story. I hurriedly scribbled the name of the artist on a piece of paper napkin, and I was hoping that the man was still alive. I was lucky. It turned out that Paul Van Hoeydonck (born 1925), one of the most prominent living Belgian artists, still lives close to the diamond Antwerp. I didn’t have to prevail upon him too much to agree with an interview.

Fallen Astronaut and the commemorative plaque left on the moon. (Photo archives Paul van Hoeydonck)

‘I don’t believe in God but I believe in the Universe. And I believe the Universe influences us and controls our lives. It is the same as love. One day you meet a woman of your life, you fall in love with her and you don’t even know why, or why she fell in love with such an old man (pointing at his wife who is forty years younger — ed. note). Somehow, we are not able to explain everything. I believe both in a higher power and in human desire of getting to the root of things,’ he perplexed me a little, as he passionately kissed his Marleen. He ordered local dark beer and started speaking in perfect English. He apparently likes meeting new people.

A Gallery on the Moon

He remembers all details. On 2nd August 1971 at exactly 12:18 GMT Apollo 15 commander David Scott placed a tiny aluminium figure on the dusty moon land at Hadley Rille crater. Next to the figure he placed a plaque bearing names of eight American astronauts and six Soviet cosmonauts who died during the space travel or during training in the time of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. That was the fourth time since humankind successfully landed on the Moon. Astronaut James Irwin got off the lunar module together with colonel Scott; out of his pocket he took a piece of lava and silver medallions with fingerprints of his wife and children.

Paul Van Hoeydonck poses with a replica of Fallen Astronaut in front of the Empire State Building, New York in 1971. (Photo archives Paul van Hoeydonck)

‘I had several successful exhibitions in Europe and so I decided to leave for America. Finding a gallery in New York was no problem. During my second exhibition there I overheard the gallery director talking to someone about placing my statue on the Moon. That day I told them they had to be completely crazy. And you see, few months later my statuette was really placed there. That is the whole story,’ the sculptor recounted modestly. In his work he has been concerned with futuristic themes. But I will tell you about this a bit later.

Is he a Republican?!

Let’s go back to the year 1969. When Van Hoeydonck asked how they wanted to arrange the cosmic journey of his statuette the New York gallery director Louise Tolliver Deutschman answered honestly that she didn’t know yet, but that she would do her best to arrange it. In the meantime, astronaut David Scott got a similar idea. This idea came to life when Scott met Van Hoeydonck during a private dinner at Kennedy Space Center. It was only few months before the start of Apollo 15, and the requirements of National Aeronautics and Space Administration were very strict. Eventually Scott convinced NASA management that it would be a tribute to brave American and Soviet men who died in direct service of space exploration. Their names were to be listed on a small plaque. ‘The statuette was supposed to symbolize the human endeavour to reach the stars,’ Van Hoeydonck added.

Final decision lied on the head of the American president of that time, Richard Nixon. ‘Yes, he had to authorize the export of the statuette. Each astronaut who then travelled to Moon could bring a small item in his pocket. Usually it was some necessary equipment. The astronauts asked president Nixon if they could bring a small figure with them. The president was just concerned if the artist was a Republican. No, he is a Belgian, they said. The president just swept his hand and said that in such case everything is all right,’ the sculptor goes back to the past and cheerfully laughs.

Meeting Nixon

Nixon in person allegedly granted Van Hoeydonck, the best artist in the Universe as he is sometimes being called, a small part of the Moon in the area where the figure has been placed. The artist nodded and agreed with the legend — he truly holds a decree saying he owns a piece of the Earth’s natural satellite: ‘Few years back I went to the American Embassy, I wanted to give this peace of Moon back to the US. They said they could not accept it back because Moon did not belong to the US. And so I have kept it.’

He met Richard Nixon face to face a bit later, after the Watergate scandal when Nixon was no longer a president. ‘At that time I was staying at my friends’ apartment on 77th St. East in Upper East Side, one of the best addresses in the centre of New York. One evening I spotted Nixon himself nearby. Despite his security staff I managed to address him. I thanked him for allowing me to create the statuette. Nixon did not answer; he only asked if I had become an American yet,’ Van Haydock explains the extraordinary experience.

He obviously has a soft spot for the controversial Republican. ‘You know, Nixon’s reputation is as it is. But he was a boy from the poor common crowd and the wealthy families of Washington did not accept him. Even later when he became president American high society turned up their noses at him. Which was quite strange. He was a good man. Before they vote for you must be an angel, but in this kind of office one must then change into a devil. You need to realize that if it weren’t for Nixon there would be a war between China and America. He was the first US president ever who visited China and managed to keep the peace. He also did a lot of good things for Afro-Americans, but still the journalists tore him to pieces,’ Van Hoeydonck continued.

Illegal Copy

Let’s go back to the Fallen Astronaut. In addition to later attention, Van Hoeydonck also received a solid portion of envy. American art community was disappointed especially because the statuette for NASA had not been created by an American artist but by some outsider from Europe. In those days press, including the respected New York Times, claimed it was the most expensive transfer of any piece of art in human history, and that a foreigner did not deserve such privilege.

With the original issue of The New York Times and a copy of The Fallen Astronaut. (Photo archives Paul van Hoeydonck)

‘The press then was discussing that some European artist received a million-worth commission. Americans are big patriots, us Belgians are not like this. Our national consciousness is subtle. To give up a Belgian citizenship is not such a catastrophe for us as it would be for an American. If I had to accept American citizenship in those days, I would do it. I still like the US,’ he recalled the bitter taste of the whole issue and sighed that a different kind of grudge had been waiting for him after his return to Belgium.

The design of the 8.5 cm aluminium figure was expensive. Van Hoeydonck worked on the design together with his son, also an acclaimed artist whose death in 1984 deeply hurt him. NASA had several requirements. The figure had to be light but strong, made of material that would both endure extreme moon conditions, and would not be a threat to the mission. It had to avoid any gender or ethnic sings, the colour was also important due to possible ethnical discrimination or due to speculations related to political affiliation. And first of all, it had to be as small as possible.

The sculptor initially wished the figure to be placed in an upright position, he did not want it to be laid down because he wished to name the work rather positively, for example Man on the Moon. In the end all participants agreed on the name Fallen Astronaut.

Artist Paul Van Hoeydonck and the journalist Katerina Farna. (Photo by Kateřina Farná)

A year after the landing the artist and all members of the team were to keep silence in relation to the author of the work. Astronaut David Scott earlier requested that the statuette should not bear the authors name to prevent it from any commercial exploitation. Ultimately a big problem aroused there, as the owner of the New York gallery Dick Waddell together with Van Hoeydonck announced in 1972 that they would like allow the public to purchase 950 copies of Fallen Astronaut for 750 dollars each. NASA board railed strongly against such idea because activities of the national administration forbid such commercial activity. Eventually only 50 replicas were made. They were allegedly distributed as gifts to various friends, ambassadors, museums, one was carried up to Mount Vesuvius, some others were presented to Flemish parliament — and a 40x magnified copy has been placed in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in Dunkerque.

Envy Waiting in Belgium

During our interview Van Hoeydonck insisted that no statuette had ever been sold and emphasized that he had never intended to make any money in this activity. David Scott strongly opposed to commercial use of the moon statuette, which probably caused that he and Van Hoeydonck never became closer friends. Juicy fact is that Scott himself did not really practise what he preached. It turned out he got involved in an illegal business with stamps specially postmarked on the Moon, which were put into circulation in quite a large number.

In those years, astronauts were generally on pedestal of social esteem, therefore colonel Scott’s punishment served as an exemplary case and he was completely banned from any other service related to space travel.

American public sources admitted a possibility that it was Van Hoeydonck who had probably misunderstood the agreement with astronauts and later decided to distribute 950 copies of Fallen Astronaut for sale. I was not able to confirm this information; the Belgian artist dissociated himself from this possibility saying a wrecking American gallery owner whom he regarded as best friend had betrayed him.

‘Creating the statuette meant considerable financial requirements. Even we invested a lot. When I read American newspapers at that time journalists criticized us for spending too many dollars. My American lawyer advised me to go back to Europe. I brought home with me one figure. However, situation in Belgium wasn’t any brighter. Many people hated me. They thought I made a lot of money with the statuette. So I decided I didn’t want my name to be connected with this activity anymore,’ Van Hoeydonck explained and swore by the death of his son that he had never sold any figure for a single cent.

A luxury diamond jewellery collection with an unique motif. (Photo archives Paul van Hoeydonck)

His wife Marleen put forward that her husband owned all author rights; and then she showed me the newest project on which they were pleased to have worked happily together — a collection of luxury diamond jewellery.

What happened after the details related to the work of art on the Moon were declassified is most likely one of the reasons why Van Hoeydonck’s connection to the unique story of the Fallen Astronaut drowned in the depth of history and does not enjoy general knowledge around the world. I am surprised that Belgians and especially Flemings know so little about the statuette of this Belgian artist, the statuette that has been brought up 
 to the Moon by Americans in 1971.

Ordinary Flemish Boy

How has autodidact Paul Van Hoeydonck, whose works are included in renowned collections, become matador of Belgian art stage? His journey was not a simple one. Van Hoeydonck’s mother raised him alone and he had to be able to take care of himself. He comes from an interesting background, which nicely illustrates the ambivalence of Belgian society: one part of his family a wealthy bourgeoisie, the other ordinary blue-collar class. ‘I am an ordinary Flemish boy,’ he claimed.

Van Hoeydonck grew up in a bilingual environment, he mentioned that he had hated Flemish literature, but he read a lot of French and English one, and sometimes Italian, which he understood a little. ‘I was a big fan of Jules Verne stories. When lived and I grew up in Antwerp the town was divided into two blocs — working Flemish and francophone aristocracy. In those early days I could already read in French because my parents came from both these worlds,’ explained 91-year-old happy adventurer, as he jokingly described himself.

When he was a child, he loved drawing and later he attended an evening art school. Even then, he didn’t like art academies very much. Spending just few weeks at one he let them dismiss him and rather went to work in a bank. After WWII Van Hoeydonck lived on tobacco smuggling from Vienna for a while. In his opinion art represents the most powerful manifestation of love: ‘You need to love what you do. As much as you love your own wife. Art is my life, art is mental adventure.’

The space art is an unique style. (Photo by Danny Van Hoecke)

Especially in the 60s he travelled a lot between Paris — London — Milan. Success at biennial in Venice earned him a plane ticket to New York; exhibition of carvings made of waste, where he was a bit ahead of his time, brought him fame. However, on his way up to worldwide acceptance he also made a lot of enemies. After the war Belgium was mostly Roman Catholic country and Van Hoeydonck’s futuristic visions were not welcome. Moreover, when his group was not invited to Brussels Expo in 1958 out of spite he established group G58 that crystallized in later Zero movement (1958 to 1966).

In his space art, as Van Hoeydonck calls his art style, he has always been concerned with cities and humans of the future, robotics, and artificial intelligence. He strived to create a stronger, more resilient human who would be able to survive even the harshest conditions. His fascination by space even lead him to attempts of creating a cyborg.

The signature of Paul Van Hoeydonck. (Photo by Katerina Farna)

His whole life he has dreamed that one day he would fly to space. ‘Since I was a boy I have been talking to the Moon and telling it how beautiful it is. And I have held onto it until today. Moon is my very good friend. However in times, when so many atrocities are happening to our planet, I often ask myself whether humans are worthy of living on another planet. Now we are aiming for Mars. Who will have his first statuette placed over there? I will not live to see that but still I like looking up to the stars,’ he looked at me a little dreamily and took a fair gulp of the dark Belgian beer.

This story was written for Czech daily Pravo; translated by Karolina Luchesi.