A FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW OF
Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings
Courtauld Gallery | Somerset House, Strand, London WC2
15 October 2015 – 17 January 2016
By DAVID NOWELL SMITH.
AS IF SUPERIMPOSED over whites and pale blues, thick red brushstrokes sketch out a vaguely rectangular shape—the route, we are told, of Peter Lanyon’s (1918-64) first solo flight in a glider. Inside this red frame-within-a-frame, spots of impasto white jut outwards, ochres and beiges scratch through to the surface, whilst diagonal and swirled strokes of pale blue offset the large vertical and horizontal sweeps of red; turn your eyes downwards and you encounter dull green shards, as though earth seen through the clouds; at the edges the paintwork scuffs and fragments, leaving the board visible beneath, as though embodying the precariousness of weight—of a body, as Lanyon described it, borne by a ‘sense of solitary quietness and sharp awareness of the substance of the ground below’.
How are we to read these marks, the swathes and accumulations of colour and movement that characterise Solo Flight (1960), and so many other of Lanyon’s gliding paintings brought together in Soaring Flight? To call him an ‘abstract’ painter seems wrong: the pictorial gestures are too motivated. The curators of Soaring Flight continually invite us to read the paintings as representational, with individual elements associated tentatively with a particular geographical feature. Lanyon himself observed that, without his realising it, specific visual references would crop up in his paintings, which he would notice only after the fact. But more than constructing landscapes, these paintings seek to inhabit space, and invite their beholder to inhabit the painting’s own pictorial space in their turn. ‘I paint places’, he wrote, ‘but always the Placeness of them… And my aim as far as I can see it is to make a face an “actuality” or “thingness” for experience. To present for sensory experience a face.’ A ‘face’ for sensory experience, says Lanyon; these ‘faces’ are themselves no less sensory, responding to the brute physical experience of the glider with a sensuality of their own. Lanyon’s late paintings are choreographies of pigment on canvas; they set in motion thermals and updraughts, collide different perspectives against one another, so as to ‘scape’, as it were, land and sky.
Any retrospective has to negotiate the ways in which purely contingent events in an artist’s life and work take on in posterity an aura of internal artistic necessity. This is particularly the case for Lanyon, given that his response to the technical and thematic demands of his early work was to take up gliding, and gliding led directly to his death in 1964 (he was 46). Lanyon’s earlier work had twinned the post-cubist imperative to open up the painterly surface to multiple perspectives with a desire, inherited from the British landscape tradition in general but late Turner in particular, to evoke the experience of place, and particularly weather, through transfigurations of light and density. ‘I wasn’t satisfied with the tradition of painting landscape from one position only’, he once said. ‘I wanted to bring together all my feelings about the landscape, and this meant breaking away from the usual method of representing space in a landscape painting’. ‘Method’ here he takes in its broadest sense, to include his aerial reconnaissance trips and experiences of absorption in the air. As it transpired, gliding would afford him a level of meteorological precision earlier painters could only dream of: his earliest ‘weather paintings’ are swirls of impressions, but these soon give way to intricate studies in atmospheric pressure.
GLIDING TRANSFORMED LANYON as both landscape painter and as inheritor from cubism. It afforded a different means of mapping the Penwith peninsula of West Cornwall where he lived most of his life, and which was the abiding inspiration for his painting. The late 1950s had already seen major shifts in his colour palette and composition in late 50s: his most celebrated paintings from the early 50s, such as Botallack and St Just, use thick, impasto grey-greens, cut into by the artist’s scalpel to evoke the scars left by tin mining on the land. The density of these early works is at times suffocating, leaving us gasping for air; little wonder, perhaps, that Lanyon should turn his attentions from earth to sky, to lighter paint application and a composition far more diffuse. At the same time, Lanyon took advantage of a different sensation of speed, a different view of earth and sky, so as to blend the layering and juxtaposition of perspective so prevalent in these early works with a reimmersion in sensual experience. The drama of the gliding paintings lies in the encounter of a finite, frail body with the multiplication of perspectives, of intimacy with power.
Solo Flight retains some of the same brushwork as the earlier paintings, albeit without the previous compositional density, and like many of his earlier works is painted on board rather than canvas, to increase the textural effects. Yet its lighter swirls and stretches of calm signal towards the later paintings on show, whose energies are channelled into a stillness of composition. The first gliding paintings are rather overwhelming in their general busyness, such as in the syncopated entanglements of crosscurrents battling it out over the canvas of Rosewall (1960). But soon, as if reflecting his greater habituation to the patterns of thermals, updraughts, etc., this busyness gives way to a more controlled aesthetic, operating through tonal variety rather than frenetic counterrhythms; Airscape (1961) has flurries of swirl and zigzag countermanded by still, smudged blues, with flecks of silvery green and ochre-yellow drawing out a luminescence from the ensemble. Lanyon’s inhabitation of the canvas, as well as the glider, feels that much more assured, the interplay of stasis and dynamism that much more satisfying.
With this comes a sensory experience that manages to be at once raw and sophisticated—again, a shift from his earlier work. Lanyon had always been alive to the erotic force of landscape, but had formulated this according to a rather conventional masculinist schema: the male sea penetrating the female coastline through its ceaseless tumult, prefiguring the heroic, virile artist working his plastic medium. Here, however, the paintings’ evocation of a solitary human body enveloped in thermals and updraughts creates an erotics far more complex than Lanyon’s gender imaginary allows for, as if the paintings have intuited something that Lanyon’s own descriptions are yet to articulate. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, is it as such moments that the sensuality of the painting becomes most compelling—such moments show Lanyon as a major painter in the making, whose death interrupted the emergence of an aesthetic that would have carried him heaven knows where.
David Nowell Smith is Lecturer in Poetry and Poetics in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is On Voice in Poetry: The Work of Animation (Palgrave, 2015; US readers).