Soaring flight: Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings @ the Courtauld Gallery

I’d never heard of him before but apparently Peter Lanyon (born 1918) was one of Britain’s most important post-war artists, forging a name in the 1950s as a painter of large abstracts which are, in fact, based on the landscape of his native Cornwall. A good example is Silent Coast from 1957.

In the late 1950s he took up gliding, partly for the fun of it but partly to see the landscape he loved in a new way. The experience turned out to be a liberation, not only in how he viewed the landscape below, but how he experienced the ‘airscape’, a medium he described as being as full of life and variation as the sea.

Between his taking up of the sport in 1959 and his tragically young death in 1964, Lanyon painted a series of works (and made some sculptures) based on his experience gliding through the skies. This exhibition is the first one anywhere devoted to these gliding paintings.

It is in two rooms. The first one contains seven abstracts from just before the gliding phase. Room two contains 11 paintings and 3 constructions. The change is tangible: the glider paintings are bigger and brighter and bluer.

Peter Lanyon Thermal (1960) Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Courtesy of The Tate Gallery

Peter Lanyon Thermal (1960) Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Courtesy of The Tate Gallery

There are lots of blues, lots of shades of blue as, I imagine, you experience them high in the sky, from dark navy to airy azure. The wall panels quote liberally from Lanyon’s own descriptions of flying and the titles themselves indicate the underlying figurative basis of each work. Thermal (above) is, apparently, one of the most famous glider paintings and was bought by Tate at its first showing. The wall label explains what a thermal is and describes the process of warm air rising, creating turbulence and the lift needed to support the motorless glider, and sees it enacted in this painting. Maybe. But it is also a pleasing and imaginative arrangement of colours.

Similarly, Near Cloud from a few years later, may be an attempt to convey what it feels like to be thousands of feet in the air and near cloud. But it may also be that the pleasure comes from the abstract arrangement of colours and patterns: I just like the red squiggle; and I like the way there are some red droplets in the V it makes and off up in the top left hand corner.

Having seen abstract paintings by Malevich, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern recently, they made me realise how many approaches there can be to abstract painting. In these works Lanyon seems to have created a formula which is distinctive, but results in strikingly different paintings. Or, despite their apparent variety, there is still a recognisable style at work.

Peter Lanyon Near Cloud (1964) Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches Private Collection

Peter Lanyon Near Cloud (1964) Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches. Private Collection

The commentary situates Lanyon’s work in the great tradition of English landscape painting and references Turner, who he particularly liked apparently. He saw himself as ‘extending the landscape traditions of earlier artists’. Maybe.

But he was also painting in the Pop Art era, as we’re reminded by Glide Path. The two black lines are in fact strips of rubber nailed onto the canvas and represent, well, glide paths. They enact the way the man-made vehicle cuts its way in straight or gently curving lines above a landscape characterised by much more jagged and abrupt demarcations – fields, roads, hedges, walls, cliffs, sea patterned by waves, clouds and fragments of clouds strewn across the sky.

Peter Lanyon Glide Path (1964) Oil and plastic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches Courtesy of The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Peter Lanyon Glide Path (1964) Oil and plastic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy of The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Although many of the paintings play with blue, and get lighter and airier as they evolve between 1960 and 1964, when I analysed the ones I liked I realised it was because they all had touches of red in them. Drama. Colour. Pop.

The three constructions on display are interesting, but don’t capture the sense of exuberance, colour and freedom that the paintings do.

What a great body of work it is! And how bitterly ironic that his life was cut short prematurely, aged 46, by complications in hospital while recovering from a gliding accident, killed by the thing he loved. Maybe the slashes of red which I like in several of the paintings spookily anticipate his fate. Maybe, in light of his biography, they can be reread as slender threads of human existence which can be snuffed out so casually and so finally.

Peter Lanyon Soaring Flight (1960) Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Peter Lanyon Soaring Flight (1960) Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

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