“It is impossible for me to make painting that has no reference to the very powerful landscape in which I live” spoke Peter Lanyon in 1963.
He was painting at a time when American Abstract Expressionism was taking over the contemporary art scene and yet his work remained strongly rooted in the Cornish landscape; proof that exciting modern art could be created from man’s experience in the world. The new lure of pure abstraction was not necessarily the holy grail; there could be another way…
Finding abstraction from the real world
Abstract art usually seeks to break away from traditional representation of physical objects, relying instead concerns of composition and emotive response so this idea of having to begin with a place of contact with the real world, an immersive sense of being part of our surroundings is fascinating to me.
Soaring Flight brings together a group of paintings and constructions that sprang from Lanyon’s desire to fully experience his environment from a unique vantage point. Flight and birds had already shown their influence in his earlier work and he joined the RAF in 1940 with hope of becoming a pilot but recurrent migraines halted his ambitions.
Some of these gliding paintings are collected together for the first time in this exhibition where the air and sky become not just ‘the top’ part of the painting but, as he commented “the sky is all around and is the element from which that land is experienced.”
In Silent Coast we can see that he was concerned with changing the picture plane; it is essentially an aerial view of the sea which he regarded as being “closest to out human instability”. The calmer areas of blue push the white boundaries of the coast towards the edges of the painting. This was painted the same year Lanyon visited Mark Rothko in his New York studio and it is suggested these large colour planes show his influence.
Using flight to give a new perspective
Studies of clouds and weather aren’t new obsessions for painters. Constable and Turner both made meticulous studies and used their understanding and observations of weather to create a controlled manipulation of space. Turner advised his students to “let the truth of the experience trump the over rigid dictates of conventional linear perspective and to work with an understanding of nature more profound than simply what the eye perceives.” Turner even used air balloons to lift him to a changed perspective. However what distinguishes Lanyon is his experience of using the weather to power his own flight and how that impacted upon his portrayal of land and air. In 1959 he decided to combine his fascination with landscape and flight and began to learn to fly a glider.
His 1960 log book shows how short the initial flights were – often only 2 minutes in length although as his experience and understanding of thermals grew this allowed him to make longer cross country flights, catching and using the air currents to extend his time in the air. Titles such as Backing Wind and Calm Air reveal how his view changed from simply observing the weather to specific meteorological conditions that he was now having to understand and use.
Paintings such as Thermal 1960 (oil on canvas 183 x 152.5cm) explore these conditions; the rising bubble of warm air, the turbulence caused by the boundaries between warm and cooler air. A strong thermal can lift a half ton glider at a rate of 800 feet per minute and several can allow a glider to fly of hundreds of miles. The power of the rising currents are clearly expressed in the paint markings in the lower left corner and the scraped area revealing the grey weightless shape surrounded by the thickly painted white turbulence.
Clearly he wasn’t drawing while he was flying and the paintings capture a transient experience; a combination of sight and memory which is recreated with paint. Sweeping marks may suggest the movement of flight and in the upper layers of the paintings we can see he is using ‘wet in wet’ paint techniques allowing the colours to mix as a direct result of his actions on the canvas. In some areas paint is scraped away or drawn through to reveal layers underneath.
Critic Eric Newton described his work as “areas of wild movement symbolising the thrill of a lonely struggle between wings and air, with no define able object, no foreground to give support, no landmark to lean on” 1960. Often names of locations are transposed which suggests that strict geographical identification wasn’t important to him, further reinforcing the sense of landscape as boundless.
Looking closely moving around a large painting and it almost feels like you are doing a dance. Like twirling around a dance floor with moments of speed and change of direction, carefully choreographed so all the dancers work together.
Using a white or off white ground keeps the colours fresh and quite bright, although browns and greens are often revealed in areas where the blue is scraped away. Drift 1961 stands apart from others in the exhibition using smokey greys and pinks and was named after a flight almost drifted him into the sea. The sheer exhilaration and awe he found in flying he found very sensuous and liked the exhilaration of being propelled upwards as a “sense of breathlessness and attitude of wonder” akin to seeing a woman naked.
The thin brown line in Soaring represents the flight of a bird and the red is used to mark the trajectory of the glider. It provides a bright contrast, and tells me that he continued to play with ideas of picture surface and twisting the conventions of foreground, receding landscape and how he could use paint to represent both tangible objects and intangible ideas.
This idea is taken even further in Glide Path 1964 which uses black tubing secured to the surface that breaks into our space and gives an extra dimension that sets us apart from the shifting landscape below.
By 1964 Lanyon was refining his vocabulary to the simplicities of shape, colour, line and tone. In Near Cloud the rich layered texture has been simplified down to the essentials and the surface of the painting is smoother. The dynamic yet carefully controlled sweep of red flight almost touches the stroke of grey. This seems a calmer observation of movement within space. This was probably the last painting he completed; in August 1964 Lanyon’s glider crashed and he died two days later in hospital.
“Landscape can no longer be governed by static horizons which derived from a fixed viewpoint. The person previously apart from nature now becomes the bearer of a whole journey, a complete experience.”
This writing is taken from ‘The Next Development in Man’ by Lancelot Law Whyte, a now obscure book which highly influenced Lanyon’s ideas of landscape as an ongoing dynamic, rather than static process, where the painter and the viewer are concerned with movement and change.
Many contemporary painters are still concerned with this boundary between place and emotion but Lanyon was where it began. Fifty years later we are all just catching up!
Soaring Flight is on at The Coutauld Gallery until 17 January 2017