If you want to escape from the madness of central London – a frequent need, in my experience – you could do worse than visit the Courtauld Gallery. It’s usually quiet, its home is a handsome and quirky corner of Somerset House, and its permanent collection is exceptional for its quality and holding power. You could easily stand in front of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère for half an hour or more.
Another reason is the Courtauld’s temporary exhibitions. These are always expertly curated, and often revelatory. Both adjectives apply to the current show, which includes many of Peter Lanyon’s ‘gliding paintings’ (and a few of his anticipatory ‘weather paintings’). They’re works that are among the most exciting and exhilarating I’ve seen for years.
Peter Lanyon (1918-64) was a Cornishman whose knowledge of, and love for, his native land were legendary. Apart from the periods of his education and wartime service he lived for most of his life in St Ives. The constant theme of his paintings was the land and sea of north Cornwall, in all their aspects: geological, mythological, historical, industrial and meteorological. Under a variety of influences – his teachers Adrian Stokes and Victor Pasmore, the artists like Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo who came to St Ives before the Second World War, and American Expressionists like Mark Rothko (who stayed with him in 1959) – Lanyon developed a large, colourful, gestural style, and a repertoire of images and motifs, often crammed cheek by jowl into his big canvases. A good mature example is Bojewyan farms (1951-52), a dark and complex composition knitting landscape and animal motifs into a virtual triptych that seems to show the stages of human life. His style seems close to that of this younger contemporary Prunella Clough – though her themes were more consistently industrial than his.
From the mid-1950s Lanyon was searching for a new way of imagining his Cornish landscape in paint. The problem for him was the ‘land’ part of that word. Of necessity a conventional landscape laid down a single, ground-level viewpoint, however ingeniously the artist subsequently played with multiple aspects of it. What if he could capture the land from the air above it? Or even capture the air itself? Bird wind (1955), an early example of this new way, lifts high above land and sea and takes the air as its ground. Above green fields and against a white-grey sky a bird flies up, glides horizontally, then falls abruptly. Its path is marked by a dark ‘branch’ crossing the board. Three years later came High wind, a much more chaotic picture: a paint analogue of fierce and swirling winds (blue-white) against land (green) and sea (blue), in a multidirectional system of swirls. Silent coast (1957) is a calmer painting of sea and sky together, dominated by two large areas of blue: ‘everything simplified and pushed right to the edges’.
All these works, though, consider the air from ground level. In 1959 Lanyon decided to begin taking gliding lessons, apparently with the intention of lifting his art into the sky and giving himself an entirely new perspective. (He seems to have been the first painter to take this course.) When he was able to fly solo he would spend two or three days every month in the air. The result is a huge change in his paintings. Colours simplify, paint gestures are broader and more confident. Above all, the mood becomes lighter and more sensuous as the pictures reflect, quite frankly, the exhilaration and joy of unpowered flight. Gliding supplied the artist with ‘a free-form visual log book’. All of the new paintings are given titles from the vocabulary of gliding. Thermal was painted in 1960. It models the intoxication of feeling, through the glider’s movement, the sudden uplift of a thermal, a column of warm air caused by differences in temperature on the land surface and at different levels in the air. Lanyon likened this moment to ‘an impact as sharp as being hit by a stone’. On the left of the picture is the thermal’s giant pillar of air, rising in a spiral surrounded by turbulence to a still pocket at the top left; on the right lies the stiller, cooler air, to which the glider passes and through which it will descend.
A still more ‘resolved’ painting is Soaring flight (1960). This too conveys the ecstasy of uplifted air, calm drift and sudden descent. It’s a description, wrote Lanyon, ‘of the sensation of soaring. A slow climbing movement and a fast downwind return familiar to anyone who has watched birds in flight’. The blue of the sky is almost totally dominant. A thin brown line – brown used to be the dominant colour in Lanyon’s earlier, land-bound paintings – suggests a land horizon, and a bright red vertical, converted into an inverted blue ‘V’ and then more irregular descending and re-ascending movements, gives the glider’s flight path (red was the colour of the interior of Lanyon’s machine). A translucent triangular blue ‘curtain’ falls across the right side of the picture, to stress the constant ascent/descent of air and glider.
One of Lanyon’s last ‘glider paintings’ was Glide path (1964). At first sight this seems to show a view of the land seen directly from above, green areas standing for fields below. Two straight plastic tubes are fixed to the surface of the picture, converging at a point beyond the top border. Do they mark the intended direction of the glider? But there’s also a red line, in other works standing for the glider’s path, that takes an approximately circular route, and another, black line, also broadly circular. Together the lines seem to offer a palimpsest of the whole journey – time collapsed into a single moment. The various paths are united by the white rectangle in the centre, which may stand for the cockpit window (the same shape occupies a central position in Soaring flight).
Seen together in the Courtauld’s room the glider paintings open a new and surprising chapter in painting: landscape liberated from the clay of solid earth (Lanyon called them ‘airscapes’) and freed from a singularity of viewpoint. Lanyon’s art looks rejuvenated and re-energised. He seems to take such joyful pleasure in exploring a new realm and the challenge that realm poses for the painter – a painter who always insisted that he was never an abstract artist.
It’s reasonable to ask whether there might be philosophical and emotional correlatives to Lanyon’s new artistic subject. It seems that he had been prone to melancholy, if not depression, a tendency possibly reflected in the predominant darkness of many of his ‘pre-air’ works. The later works betray few signs of negativity. On the contrary, the energy of their colours and the freedom of the brushstrokes suggest a general mood of emotional release, energy and excitement. They also allowed Lanyon to escape the static and the fixed, which he associated with the man-made world and with traditional landscape, and to embrace the world of nature in its constant change and fluidity. Flying was a process of ‘making other’ the land he knew well, maybe too well, and it meant that he could abandon the weight of significance associated with the land for a new, less populated realm. A further advantage is that the artist is in a privileged position in the ‘airspace’: not at the edge of what’s described, but in its very heart (several paintings feature the central white rectangle that suggests the glider’s window). Privileged, too, in being completely alone, and in being a servant and not a master of the air and its flows (the fuselage and wings of the glider being extensions of the pilot’s own body). ‘I have discovered’, Lanyon said, ‘since I began gliding that the activity is more sensual than I had guessed. The air is a very definite world of activity as complex and demanding as the sea’. In its moods the air offered an echo ‘of our human instability, waywardness, instability, fickleness, mood and temper’. Lanyon explores some of the metaphorical possibilities of air, even if obliquely. The sinuous cloud or path curves in Long shore (1962) have a strong human and erotic feel to them, and most of the works are sensuous in character. Christian symbolism seems to enter a few of the paintings: a cross in Drift (1961), and Alpha (upturned ‘V’ with cross-piece) and Omega signs in Soaring flight, Cross country (1960) and Glide path.
The ‘gliding paintings’ series came to an abrupt and premature end. On 31 August 1964 Lanyon crashed while flying his glider in Devon, and died later in hospital in Taunton. In the Courtauld show the paintings are supplemented by a number of mainly small wooden and plastic ‘constructions’ that he made as aids to understanding the nature of unpowered flight and the movement of air. The last and largest of them, Field landing (1964) refers to the manoeuvre of bringing a glider down in an ordinary field, in the event of inability to land on the home airfield. The main element, that represents the glider’s body, is painted green on one side, and red on the other, signifying the dangerous nature of the operation. It’s a poignant piece in the light of our knowledge of Lanyon’s end.
This is a small exhibition, just two rooms, but I found myself circling the walls, revisiting the paintings again and again. They’re complex, even secretive works, and they give up their subtleties gradually. Together they form an unusual corpus – a sustained attempt to explore the world of the air from within it, and to connect that world to the interior world of all of us. Lanyon seems to have needed to go as far back as Turner and Constable to find analogues of what he was up to (Turner’s great sea-skies and Constable’s intense cloud studies). His ‘airscape’ paintings belong comfortably in that great and select tradition.