Soaring Flight - Peter Lanyon, at the Courtauld Gallery.
During the 1950s Lanyon produced near-abstract works that were deeply rooted in the coastal landscape of West Cornwall. Fuelled by a desire to experience the landscape as fully as possible he took up gliding at the end of the decade in order to extend and transform his art.
Drifting and plunging on the thermal currents he saw earth and air in constant flux and described the experience on canvas. Freed from an earthbound perspective, he produced works that offer a sense of his encounters with the land, sea and air. The paintings capture the bright blue sky, light and the harsh lines of the jagged coast. The paintings express the sky's different movements, textures and currents, encountered as Lanyon navigated through thermals and up-draughts to soar through the sky. The sensations of gliding were also connected to various emotional states, which he strove to convey in the paintings.
In August 1964 Lanyon's glider crashed and he died two days later in hospital. He was 46 years old.
Bird Wind, 1955 (oil on board)
Bird Wind pre-dates Lanyon's gliding paintings but was crucial for their development. It relates to birds in flight over a coastal landscape, the colours evoking land, sea and sky. The prominent dark grey line marks the trajectory of a bird flying upwards at a steep angle, slowing to the point of falling, and at the vital moment, turning sharply to recover flight. Lanyon was fascinated by this manoeuvre, known as a 'stall turn'. He likened it to sexual abandon, a momentary loss of self.
Silent Coast, 1957 (oil on board)
Lanyon's landscapes often evoke turbulent and energetic conditions. Silent Coast is unusual in its calm and contemplative character. It refers to a drowsy sea viewed from high cliff tops. The painting's stillness derives from the arrangement of its large blue forms, pressing together and disturbed texture. Lanyon understood the sea as an echo of our 'human instability, waywardness, fickleness, mood and temper'. When he started gliding, the air also acquired such associations.
High Ground, 1956 (oil on board)
High Ground might be seen as a broad view of a landscape composed of field patterns, sea and sky. However, our viewpoint is uncertain and the painting's rich textures and array of marks draw us in, as if we are also seeing the landscape close-up. Lanyon explained that the diagonal line rising from the bottom left helped him to 'leave the ground and go up into the air and sky'. He recalled that 'about this time I saw three gliders over a cliff and decided to go up there myself'.
Solo Flight, 1960 (oil on board)
Lanyon painted this picture in June 1960 when he was preparing to fly solo, a momentous event for all trainee pilots. The thick red line describes the circuit of a flight. Lanyon explained that he wanted to convey 'a sense of solitary quietness and sharp awareness of the substance of the ground below'. In order to convey the proximity of the land over which he flew, he chose to paint on board to achieve a heavily textured surface.
High Wind, 1958, (oil on board)
Like Turner before him, Lanyon sought to convey the experience of dramatic weather conditions. This painting cannot be read as a simple landscape; rather, it confronts the viewer as a wall of tremendous energy, the action of Lanyon's brush akin to the forces of a gale. He produced this work the year before he learned to fly.
Soaring Flight, 1960
At the bottom of this painting, a thermal is beginning to force its way up through the sky below the glider, spiralling in white strokes through grey-blue air - weightless and yet terrifically strong. Then higher up, where the brushstrokes are looser and more fragile, comes the sense of a weakening air current, as if the glider was poised between rising and falling. The sky is not some motionless or picturesque scene: vapour is hanging in changeable veils, clouds materialise on the canvas never quite resolving into fixed patterns.