Monday, May 17, 2010

Soaring Flight

This is my 500th post!

To mark the occasion I'm including some extended thoughts here on Peter Lanyon, his landscape-inspired art and his persona as an artist-glider.  Lanyon died, following an accident bringing his glider in to land, in August 1964. Since joining the Cornish Gliding Club in 1959 he had made 385 flights and around a dozen paintings and assemblages directly inspired by gliding. His reputation at this point was based on a body of work stretching back twenty years, in which he sought the genius loci at sites around his native St. Ives. Pushing himself to seek the 'edge of landscape' in various forms and testing out his own limits in the process, he would then struggle in the studio to translate these experiences into paint.  Lanyon's artistic identity was clearly influenced by gender, class and his local Cornish roots, but when he took to the air his work as a painter took on a new dimension.

In general terms I think there two opposing tendencies fundamental to Lanyon's artistic project, established early on and captured in a pair of photographs taken for the Central Office of Information in 1947. In the first one, "Constructivist Peter Lanyon demonstrates the theory of mass within space; argues against critics that art should progress not stand still."  Here Lanyon is portrayed as a scientist, involved in challenging, technical work. In the other photograph, Lanyon poses as a Romantic visionary silhouetted against the sky, described simply as 'The Artist': "as the sun sets the rocks jut from the sea and take on shapes of human forms, becoming living things to the abstract artist." For Lanyon, the formal rigour of Constructivism allowed him to reconcile the aims of progressive modern art with the urge to paint the Cornish landscape. It was also a way of distinguishing himself from the older generation of neo-Romantic landscape painters.

Now, flight is of course a Romantic trope.  Arguing against Romanticism and for rigour and classical purity in modernism, T.E. Hulme observed that 'the whole of the romantic attitude seems to crystallise in verse round metaphors of flight. Hugo is always flying, flying over abysses, flying up into the eternal gases.' But Lanyon said himself that 'the highly technical problems of soaring flight together with the sensational range of experience it offers combine both sides of my character' . As a pilot, it was necessary to forge a direct relationship with the air, 'trying to understand it in all its moods; to learn its flow, its laws, and to try to use this knowledge to his own ends.' A glider is not simply a platform for looking down on the landscape, it is a machine requiring practical know-how.  Lanyon once said of Patrick Heron that 'he can take a poem to pieces and rebuild it, while I can take an engine to pieces and rebuild it.'

In his dual nature Lanyon was to some extent following the example of Naum Gabo, who had arrived in St Ives in 1939.  Artist Lionel Miskin once said that in Gabo's constructions 'every single joint was superbly made but it was done by a man of extreme romanticism.' Lanyon soon began building assemblages himself, experiments in articulating space which can be seen as foreshadowing his gliding experiences (Gabo had made a work called Construction in Space: Soaring in 1930). In an interview with Michael Canney, Lanyon said that gliding offered the chance 'to get actually into the air itself and get a further sense of depth and space into yourself, as it were, into your own body, and then carry it through into a painting. I think this is a further extension of what Turner was doing.' This statement relates Lanyon's art back to the vortex compositions employed by Turner, whilst signalling a greater understanding of space than earlier earthbound artists could have achieved.

 J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm 1842

Lanyon's emphasis on the experience of space through the body reflects the importance he placed on the artist's subjective role in painting. Thus, although he said that 'the whole purpose of gliding was to get to a more complete knowledge of the landscape,' he was doing more than simply making detached 'scientific' observations, like Constable's cloud studies, or the experiments of aviators like Wilber Wright, who spent hours suspended in a glider over the beach at Kitty Hawk.  The way he portrayed his own experiences in gliding paintings like Cross Country (1960) is similar to his earlier practice in exploring landscapes like Trevalgan (1951).  Other St. Ives artists could walk or drive through the Cornish countryside, but once Lanyon started gliding, his experiences set him apart from them (and from those of us looking at his paintings safely on the ground).

In a recent post on music I mentioned Debussy paying a fisherman to take him out in a storm off the coast of Brittany as part of his preparation for writing La Mer.  Turner was allegedly lashed to the mast of a ship for four hours in order to paint Snow Storm. And the same story had earlier been used to enhance the reputation of Joseph Vernet, whose grandson Horace depicted the scene in a dramatic canvas (see below). Vernet's billowing red cape in this picture reminds me of Peter Lanyon's red glider, a signal of the artist's presence in works like Soaring Flight (1960), the colour suggesting both vitality and danger. In both paintings, the threatened body which creates a sense of the Sublime is that of the artist himself. However, while Vernet is shown putting his trust in the boat's crew, Lanyon was in charge of his own destiny and his ability to overcome danger was linked directly to his understanding of landscape.

Horace Vernet, Joseph Vernet Tied to a Mast in a Storm, c. 1822

Lanyon had long been seeking 'to explore the region of vertigo and of all possible edges where equilibrium is upset and I am made responsible by my own efforts for my own survival.' He had written of seeing 'an image of his own existence' in the vertiginous view from a cliff top down to the sea. In his excellent book on the artist, Chris Stephens makes the link with Heidegger, for whom identity was defined by placing oneself at risk (Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, 2000, p152). The gliding paintings therefore represent a statement about 'being-in-the-world' and can be viewed within the context of post War Existentialist art. The approach of many artists at this time could be typified by Jean-Michel Atlan's assertion in 1950 that 'the creation of a work of art… is an adventure in which a man commits himself to struggle with the fundamental forces of nature. To see this through to the bitter end, some of us today risk our necks.' In a similar vein, Lanyon described landscape painting as 'a true ambition like the mountaineer who cannot see a mountain without wishing to climb it or a glider pilot who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them. These things take us into places where our trial is with forces greater than ourselves, where skill and training and courage combine to make us transcend our ordinary lives.'

The struggles of the Existentialist artist (described for example in Merleau-Ponty's marvelous 1945 essay 'Cézanne's doubt') turn painting into a tortuous experience. Writing of Lulworth (1956) Lanyon said 'I have been reduced to more misery and distress by such paintings than any human being can make for me.'  Lanyon suffered periodic depressions, but he came to see them as necessary preludes to artistic creation.  Paintings like Lulworth seem to reflect their agonising conception in the scratched and heavily worked paint. Andrew Causey, in contrast to Chris Stephens, has suggested that gliding led to 'greater serenity' in Lanyon's art and recognition that the 'existential period' of post War art was over (in his book Peter Lanyon, 1991, p12). Soaring Flight, with its calming layers of diaphanous pale blue sky, fit such a reading, but other glider paintings, like Solo Flight (1960) with its jagged red flight path through dirty white clouds, seem to retain a sense of anxiety.

Lanyon had been developing a freer handling of paint before he started gliding, but it is tempting to identify a more 'airborne' style in the late works. Marinetti, describing the new art inspired by flight in 1929 for the Manifesto dell'Aeropittura, said, 'every aeropainting simultaneously contains the double movement of the aeroplane and of the painter's hand'.  Flying in loops and arcs through the empty sky, Lanyon was Harold Rosenberg's Action Painter with the sky for a canvas. But Lanyon was suspicious of some recent abstract expressionism, complaining that 'the gesture made in desperation or joy is not enough, it is scything in the air.' This 'scything' was very different from the control and skill required in gliding, it was 'to mistake for art that which is a mark of human pride, greed and ambition.'

In spite of these reservations, Lanyon's work was increasingly associated with Abstract Expressionism. After his New York exhibitions in 1957 and 1959, Lanyon got to know Rothko, Motherwell and other leading artists. Subsequently, Lanyon's move to thinner paint and sheets of colour, as in Soaring Flight, kept pace with stylistic developments in abstract painting, although his insistence on the need for specific subject matter was fundamentally at odds with Post-Painterly Abstraction. However, his paintings of weather systems and flight loosened the connection to Cornwall and it makes you wonder whether, in part, Lanyon took to the air in flight from the perceived limitations of 'provincial' landscape painting.

Lanyon's Quoit, Cornwall
Photographed by me, January 2009

Peter Lanyon was proud of his family's Cornish roots and took pleasure in the coincidence of an ancient dolmen near St Ives called Lanyon's Quoit (which I went to visit on a windy winter's day last year).  In a 1957 autobiographical note he described himself as 'proud of the host of artists colonising West Penwith particularly his own contemporaries, but considers himself to be THE HOST'.  In 1961 Lanyon was actually made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd for services to Cornish art.  The same year Lanyon opposed Patrick Heron's successful campaign to stop a new tin mine near Zennor. Lanyon saw welcome job opportunities in the proposal and complained that 'opponents of the scheme talk of beauty and the magnificence of scenery as if nature were incapable of wrath that would touch them.' Aloft in his glider, Lanyon felt a new sense of detachment, but he still felt anger at the harsh history of the mining and farming communities visible below . His sympathies reflect an embarrassment with his privileged class background - although gliding itself was a resolutely middle class hobby. Lanyon did not stop painting the Cornish landscape, but gliding gave him the chance 'to experience my county from outside returning to land rather than emerging from inside.'

Gliding may represent only a partial disengagement from Cornwall, but it served to emphasise Lanyon's independence from the other St Ives artists. In 1950 he had resigned from the Penwith Society of Arts, mainly over Ben Nicholson's attempt to divide artists into two groups, 'abstract' and 'representational', a division which would have undermined Lanyon's own artistic project, which fell within both camps. The break with Nicholson has been seen as an Oedipal revolt against an artistic father-figure (Lanyon had lessons with Nicholson in 1940).  The split was a significant step in establishing Lanyon's own unique identity away from the Nicholson-Hepworth circle: ten years later, he painted his first gliding picture and called it Solo Flight. The idea that a person is responsible for creating their own identity was particularly prevalent in the Existentialist fifties (with its Rebels and Outsiders). In his book The Beauty of Gliding, published in 1960, a leading glider pilot Philip Wills wrote that gliding represented 'individualism in excelsis'.

In the twentieth century mythology of flight, women and domesticity were often threats to the freedom of the pilot. Antonie de Saint-Exupéry, in Night Flight, describes the pilot's wife thus: 'she remained behind, gazing sadly at the flowers, the books, the tender souvenirs - for him a mere ocean bottom.' Lanyon's use of household objects in his construction Field Landing (1963-4), suggests both relief in the return to domestic safety and a sense that such items are absurdly trivial after experiencing the 'ocean' of the sky.  His domestic circumstances were crowded and occasionally strained: by the time Lanyon took up gliding he had a wife and six children. He had various semi-open affairs and his method of painting landscapes based on direct experiences led him to incorporate references to actual encounters (referring to his mistress from about 1956, Lanyon told a friend that 'Lulworth is a portrait of Susan' ).  This projection of the human body onto the landscape is something I've discussed here before but I don't think it's that relevant to Lanyon's glider paintings.  There is nothing equivalent, for example, to the sculpture by Lucio Fontana called The Mistresses of Pilots (1931) which seems to project an aviator's memories or fantasies onto the smooth, rounded forms of the Italian countryside below.  Rather than gazing down on the landscape, Lanyon's vision is of his own body in an encounter with the Sublime - something traditionally gendered as masculine in landscape aesthetics.

I can imagine that in choosing to pilot a glider Lanyon was partially setting his art apart from the iconography of aeroplanes, since the optimistic response to flight in art just prior to the first World War had given way to paintings showing the destructive potential of aircraft (Guernica being only the most famous). Gliders were also used in wartime, but they were not associated with air battles or bombing missions, and in the fifties, the sport had a therapeutic appeal to many ex-servicemen. As one prominent glider put it: 'the silence, the beauty, and the individualness of it, had been magnified in people's minds as the antithesis of the war itself' (see Ann Welch and Lorne Welch, The Story of Gliding p147).  For Lanyon, gliding was a partial reaction to the frustrations of his experiences in the RAF, where migraines prevented him from flying until the end of the war.

Of course until the turn of the last century gliding a few feet above the ground was the nearest anyone had come to flight. By 1910, the rapid development of aeroplanes rendered gliding redundant and the sport was left to develop among amateur enthusiasts. Gliding competitions in the fifties and sixties in many ways resembled the early contests between pilots, with attempts to set records for speed and distance. As aeroplanes had become more automated, gliding was a way of recapturing the excitement of the aviation pioneers. For an artist, like Lanyon, gliding could provide the sense of wonder in flight that had originally inspired Picasso, Braque and Delaunay, all of whom went to watch the early aeroplanes flying at Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris. However, the fascinated engagement of the public in such events was entirely missing from the sport of gliding. When the Futurist poet Vasily Kamensky learned how to fly in 1912 he immediately went on a tour of Poland, demonstrating the miracle of flight to the inhabitants of provincial towns; Lanyon's gliding in contrast was a private affair. The absence of spectacle was consistent with Lanyon's views on the purpose of gliding; whilst various forms of performance art were emerging in the early sixties, Lanyon never started to see gliding as a form of art in its own right.

Yves Klein, a herald of the new art, suggested that the painter of space 'must go there by himself, by means of individual, autonomous force, in a word, he ought to be capable of levitating,' Lanyon actually managed this in his own way, but remained committed to the idea of advancing the practice of oil painting, something that Klein and other artists in the ensuing decade were increasingly uninterested in attempting. Klein's ascension in Leap into the Void (1960) questioned the way God-like powers have been ascribed to artists, whilst simultaneously contributing to his own myth. Lanyon was content to joke about his artistic persona in private postcards - one sent to Margaret Matilde in 1960 grafts a photograph of the artist (pipe in mouth) onto the image of a starling; another, sent to his dealers, superimposes the artist in his glider onto a postcard of a seagull.  Lanyon's identification with birds actually went back a long way - his 1940 Triangle Construction was apparently inspired by weekly trips to Bosigran where he watched the seagulls 'moulding the space between the rock and shore'.  In the RAF he saw spitfires as 'graceful birds' - a far cry from Marinetti and the idea of planes embodying speed and power.  In a BBC interview Lanyon spoke of choosing to paint a cliff 'as it would be experienced by a bird', in terms of thermal currents rather than as a view of white rocks offset by the sea.

Source: Arnold Paul, Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Hepworth, interviewed about Lanyon's death, described him as 'a unique spirit - a spirit that was perhaps airborne.' Spiralling upwards in a thermal, the glider pilot resembles Icarus, whom Gautier took to symbolise the over-ambitious Romantic artist.  It's hard not to make the connection, but worth resisting easy comparisons.  I remember reading a review of the Tate St Ives exhibition 'Coastal Journey' in which Amber Cowen wrote: 'ultimately, it was Lanyon’s obsession with capturing his visions that led to his death in 1964. He began hang-gliding to explore the air currents around the Cornish headlands but fell over Perranporth' (The Times, 11 November 2000).  The distortion of the facts here is telling. Lanyon was in a gliding plane, and rather than 'falling' to his death, Icarus-like, over his beloved Cornwall, he crashed on landing near Honiton in Devon.

Lanyon made works inspired by classical myths - Europa (1954), Antigone (1962), Orpheus (1961) - but none used the Icarus legend.  Instead he compared himself to Orpheus, who was 'like the artist searching for his image, for the meaning of what he is doing' . Orpheus's search for Euridyce took him underground rather than into the air. Lanyon himself descended below ground to explore old tin mines, testing out the limits of his claustrophobia just as in gliding he pushed the limits of his vertigo. However, Lanyon did not place any particular emphasis in his writings on mythic prototypes for the artist and it has been left for others to draw comparisons between Lanyon and Icarus.

Lanyon's death lends his gliding paintings a heightened sense of danger that may have been less apparent at the time. The biggest gliding centre in England had run 100,000 flights during the fifties without injuries to either pilots or passengers. Lanyon's own injuries were not felt to by life threatening and his death came as a result of an unsuspected blood clot caused by a cut in his leg. The red paint denoting Lanyon's glider may signify an element of danger, but it also simply records the colour of the gliders Lanyon actually used. However, Lanyon's awareness of the dangers may have been heightened by the knowledge that Ben Nicholson's architect brother, Kit, had died in a gliding accident in 1948. Kit Nicholson, who designed and built the London Gliding Club building at Dunstable (1935-6), was a serious competitive glider and set a British distance record in 1938. Like Lanyon, Nicholson's artistic impulses were combined with practical know-how and an urge to test his skills in risky situations . Nicholson's fatal last flight over the Swiss Alps represented the kind of endeavour Lanyon felt landscape painting should aspire towards.

As far as I can see, hardly any critics in Britain have attempted to sensationalise the crash or let it influence their reading of his work. Andrew Graham-Dixon (writing in the Independent, 30/4/91)  has identified a very British reluctance to use the fact to promote Lanyon's work, in contrast to the kind of 'publicity drive' that followed the deaths of Pollock and Rothko . One possible reason for downplaying Lanyon's accident would be to keep his gliding in proper perspective. Having written this lengthy post on the subject, I should emphasise that focusing on Lanyon's brief period as an artist-glider may cast a misleading light on his career - to a large extent his flying simply extended elements of the identity he had already established by the 1940s.  The six major gliding paintings all date from 1960-62 and it is possible that at the time of his death Lanyon had largely worked through his interest in painting the flight of the body through space.  However, Glide Path, which incorporates elements of assemblage, dates from 1964 and suggests a continuing interest in the subject. Sadly we'll never know what soaring flights the art of Peter Lanyon would have taken next.

A final word on sources.  As usual I've not attempted to footnote this post in detail as it's not supposed to be an academic article.  The best book on Peter Lanyon is the monograph by Chris Stephens (see above), which includes many of the quotes from Lanyon and information on sources.  I would also recommend a series of beautifully produced books by Andrew Lanyon, the artist's son, if you can track them down, such as 'Peter Lanyon 1918-64' (Newlyn, 1990). Lanyon obviously features strongly in the many general surveys on St Ives Art.  The Tate Archive has good original material - texts by Lanyon (e.g. 'Landscape Coast Journey and Painting', 1959, TGA TAV216AB), interviews (e.g. 'An Unfamiliar Land: Interview with Lionel Miskin', 1962, TGA TAV211AB) and letters (e.g. Sheila Lanyon's moving letter to Ben Nicholson on 25 September 1964, TGA 8717.1.2.2170).  Finally I would recommend W. S. Graham's poem 'Thermal Stair' which, like Lanyon's paintings, I can't reproduce here for copyright reasons, but which you can read at the Poetry Archive.


Hels said...

I never know with dangerous activities how much is romantic visionary activity, enabling the individual to be at one with nature and how much is a stupid male thing, recklessly challenging anybody or anything that stands in his way.

This is the important sentence. "Like Lanyon, Kit Nicholson's artistic impulses were combined with practical know-how and an urge to test his skills in risky situations . Nicholson's fatal last flight over the Swiss Alps represented the kind of endeavour Lanyon felt landscape painting should aspire towards".

Most sensible people would certainly understand that feeling, but would not act on it. How much truth (i.e personal experience) in art was essential?

Plinius said...

Yes, many of the attitudes seem very dated now and it is striking to think how far art changed even in the ten years after Lanyon's death (a decade corresponding to the career of Robert Smithson, who died in a plane crash whilst surveying the site of Amarillo Ramp).