Published  06/11/2015

Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings

Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings

This tightly focused and coherent exhibition concentrates on the paintings the artist made in response to his experiences as a glider pilot from 1959 until his death five years later, following a bad landing

The Courtauld Gallery, London
15 October 2015 – 17 January 2016


“Each age brings with it its own light, its particular feeling for space, as a definite need. Our civilisation, even for those who have not been up in an aeroplane, has led to a new understanding of the sky, of the expanse of space. Today there is a demand for total possession of this space.” – Henri Matisse, 1945

Propelling modern painting in the European tradition – abstract painting, in particular – was a move upwards, a throwing-off of the pull of the ground and the restriction of the horizon line. For centuries, painters had used these conventions as fundamental structuring elements of their pictures, inextricable from the order underlying their arrangements of spaces, bodies and things. What had been conventions became constraints, placing what came to be seen as unacceptable limitations on the equivalents artists created of the world or their feelings for it. Everything solid melted into air. 

Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Glider Paintings tells the story of a particular episode within the developments that I have briefly sketched. It is the first exhibition to concentrate on the paintings Lanyon made in response to his experiences as a glider pilot. Between taking up gliding in 1959 and his death five years later, following injuries sustained during a bad landing, Lanyon clocked up 57 flying hours, more than 385 flights. He flew mainly over his native Cornwall, with the intention of establishing a new relationship to the landscape he knew so well and which had long been the explicit subject of his art.

As it is adept at doing, the Courtauld has turned the small size of its temporary galleries to its advantage and produced a tightly focused and coherent exhibition. The light and space in Lanyon’s paintings return the compliment and I haven’t seen these galleries looking as beautiful. Rosewall (1960), Long Shore (1962), Near Cloud (1964) and Glide Path (1964) have a freedom, flexibility and power I had not previously associated with his art. Perhaps most memorable are the dramatic shifts in scale Lanyon effects, both from image to image and within a single image. In High Wind (1958), we are thrust into a painting so it dissolves into an overwhelming thicket of marks. In Near Cloud, the viewer is positioned far below the action, looking up at an image that is clarified, distinct but unobtainable. In Glide Path, we are raised up, up and up, looking downwards with the suggestion of vertigo, and in Rosewall, we are confronted with the subtle echo of a standing figure, though one no longer securely bound by gravity.

The exhibition co-curator and Lanyon scholar Toby Treves learned to fly a glider as part of his research on Lanyon. Introducing his engaging account of a solo flight, Treves writes: “If it evokes the sudden shift of colour and texture found in some of the paintings, or if it suggests some of the tilting axes or the sharp changes in the direction or the quality of marks found in others, then it will have laid the foundation upon which these paintings can be attached to the experience which informed them.”

This “attachment to experience” is at the heart of the catalogue that accompanies Soaring Flight. Lanyon is presented in the terms he understood himself – that is, primarily as a realist or landscape painter, whose images were made in response to particular subjects, and which can be related back to these subjects, often with great specificity. The catalogue convincingly argues that flying a glider is a very different thing from experiencing the sky through powered flight, whether as pilot or passenger. As Lanyon put it: “I have discovered 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.”

Mixing visual analysis, clues given by titles and the artist’s own commentaries, Treves’s catalogue entries interestingly show how the paintings can be seen to represent particular aspects of gliding or the meteorological phenomena that allow the activity to exist. Sam Smiles, one of the contributors to the exhibition catalogue, connects Lanyon – again, as the artist wished – to the ‘radical’ British landscape painting of John Constable and, in particular, JMW Turner. Smiles also puts the glider pictures in the context of other depictions of man-made flight, drawing his examples from the 18th to the first half of the 20th century, with an emphasis on representational artists who experienced or imagined flight during the two world wars. Both Smiles’s and Treves’s essays draw on literary accounts of flight, from Marcel Proust to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

In general, Lanyon’s realism is seen as an embodied one, concerned with the experience of a particular place at a particular time, in which artist and landscape are figured as completely bound up with each other – land, sky and weather thrown into the melee of an individual consciousness, this consciousness simultaneously the arena that binds the environment together. Margaret Garlake’s contribution to the catalogue describes this sense of self as part of phenomenological and existentialist thought. Lanyon himself explained Airscape (1961) so: “There’s a spiral current on the left, quiet air in the middle and stormy weather conditions – an approaching rainstorm on the right. Far below, out of range of one’s feet is the landscape from St Agnes, looking eastward into Cornwall. It’s an ancient country, scored and marked by centuries of mining. This comes into the picture, but so does the sudden event happening in the present, for the whole idea of the painting began when, flying over a cliff, I disturbed a bird on its nest. It is this range of experience – from the immediate to the historical – that I want to include in my pictures.”

In line with an understanding of Lanyon as a realist painter is an understanding of changing subject matter as the chief cause of the changing look – for want of a better word – of Lanyon’s painting. The “place” pictures of the 50s (not included in the exhibition), with their jumbles of Cornish hills, mines and cliffs, precede the “glider” paintings, with the gap between the two occupied by the “weather” pictures: the shift correlates with a movement upwards, away from the ground. Instead of earth colours, the clear icy blue of the sky. Instead of hills, mines and cliffs, flurries of marks indicate the thermals gliders rely on to ascend, or lines trace their flight paths through the sky.

The exhibition’s singular focus is hugely successful and it is impossible to deny the importance of gliding for Lanyon. But, ultimately, the catalogue sticks too tightly to its central positioning of him as a realist painter, with a particular subject matter. This removes him from currents in modern painting that could provide a more telling context than that summoned by the illustration of works by Paul Nash, the Futurist Tullio Crali, Richard Carline and Walter Thomas Monnington. The latter two English artists depicted flight or the bird’s eye views it enabled during the first and second world wars respectively, though their handling of paint and their deployment of single perspectives did not depart from long-established land-based conventions. In contrast, the catalogue only nods towards Lanyon’s involvement with abstract expressionism. He visited New York in 1957, striking up friendships with artists including Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell and seeing an exhibition by Willem de Kooning. The impact of De Kooning – then the most influential painter in New York – is surely as important to the shifts in Lanyon’s work as was its subject matter changing from “place” to “weather” to “glider”. Beyond the formal impetus De Kooning provided, it also seems productive to think about both him and Lanyon through their parallel investigations of an allusive visual language standing for the eroticised female body. Drift (1961) reminded Lanyon “very strongly of the sort of vulnerability which a woman shows in her breasts, stomach and navel. The quality always produces a sense of breathlessness in me, or a sort of silence; the attitude of wonder. This is exactly what happens when I am released into a glider flight when I am soaring.”

The catalogue argues that considering Lanyon as an abstract expressionist meant – and implicitly still means – making his paintings “comply to a particular set of values that contradicted or restricted the artist’s stated intentions” or expanding the term abstract expressionist “to the point of meaninglessness”. That is, Lanyon should not be considered in relation to abstract expressionism – or abstract art, more broadly – because his paintings stemmed from a personal, subjective and embodied experience of the world and focused on a specific activity within it. On the one hand, this passes over the fact that abstract expressionism was not a rigidly defined, manifesto-led club, but a sprawling tendency manifesting itself internationally in greatly diverse ways. On the other, it does not consider the possibility – contentious, but very real – that it is a precisely a submerged figuration, and an openness to the sensuous experience of the world that runs through, and perhaps even created, the diversity of abstract expressionist-type painting.

De Kooning – the certified abstract expressionist that Lanyon’s art made the most use of – is the supreme example of an artist riding roughshod over the distinctions between figuration and abstraction (and not just in his Women series). But even among the most reductive of De Kooning’s contemporaries, Rothko had the horizon line and the emptiness of the sky, and Barnett Newman was indebted to grand, processional architectural spaces. Figuration and abstraction were competing compulsions within abstract expressionism, and artists and individual works can be positioned (a little simplistically, I admit) along a sliding scale between the two. Each of the abstract expressionists attempted their own resolution between incorporating the world and rejecting it, attaching and detaching themselves from experience, so that a painting could stand in for the world, without creating a part to part resemblance to it. Similar twinned compulsions existed in Lanyon, even if his particular cultural situation meant his art more actively staged the contradiction, and that, when speaking of it, he emphasised its roots in the figurative tradition. It is telling – and perhaps very British – that 50 years later, Lanyon’s difficulties with the abstract aspect of his art are again played out in the catalogue.

Many painters in the orbit of abstract expressionism were profoundly effected by flight. The catalogue briefly mentions Lanyon’s friend and fellow glider pilot Alan Davie, but there is no room for William Turnbull, Albert Irvin, Kenneth Noland or Sam Francis, all of whom were in the British or US air-forces during the second world war. Turnbull remembered that in a plane: “The world didn’t any longer look like a Dutch landscape; it looked like an abstract painting. You looked down and you realised that so much of what one felt was true depended upon where you were standing to look at it.” Francis was fascinated by “the blue of the atmosphere, seen from a jet 30,000 feet high”. Though not a pilot, Pollock positioned his aerated and dematerialised drip-paintings as expressions of “the aeroplane, the atom bomb, the radio”. That Lanyon flew a glider rather than a powered plane no doubt had a strong, all-pervasive effect on his art – on its variety and its shifting scales and perspectives – but the result was a difference in quality rather than kind. Whatever their differences, these flying-painters shared a fundamental dislocation from the ground and gravity, and an embrace of sensations of freedom and weightlessness. These sensations had been building up within modern painting well before the Wright brothers took off. As flight became more common, the experience – and mythology and imagining – of it fed back into painting, broadening painters’ appetite for an movement upward and intensifying their desire to create structures that were detached from directly portraying experience and toward less nameable emotions, urges, states of being. Linking Lanyon to Nash, Crali, Carline and Monnington through their common use of a flight as a subject for their art can only go so far. This is not because subject is not important, but because their approach to it did not compel them into this fundamental stream within modern art, as it did Lanyon. Imagine how much richer and more compelling a Lanyon would look alongside a Francis, a Turnbull; one of Motherwell’s Beside the Sea series; Matisse’s Icarus (1946), or even a late Georges Braque bird picture.

The catalogue to Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings gives us a figurative rather than an abstract artist, an isolated last link in a centuries-old landscape tradition. The exhilarating exhibition it accompanies suggests that this is not an either / or option and that Lanyon should be afforded a much more central place within the development of modern painting.


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