As we open the doors this week to the Courtauld Gallery’s autumn exhibition Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings. Curator Barnaby Wright shares with us the great lengths curators will go to all in the name of research…
Being a curator can take you to some unusual places. I thought I had experienced my fair share of these during my career at The Courtauld Gallery but I was made to think again the other week as I strapped myself into the tiny cockpit of a glider and moments later was catapulted a thousand feet into the skies above Luton. ‘Strange’, my instructor exclaimed as the launch cable released with a loud bang, ‘this dial says we are going up and this one says we are going down.’ It is at moments like this that commitment to one’s career is gently tested.
I had been persuaded to spend a day gliding by Toby Treves, the co-curator of our exhibition, Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings. Taking up gliding had given him new and vivid insights into the remarkable series of paintings Lanyon produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which were based upon his experiences as a glider pilot. Sitting at the time on a reassuringly earth-bound bench in The Courtauld Gallery, I had agreed to follow suit – after all, our exhibition policy lays great emphasis upon the importance of primary research….
Lanyon’s decision to take up gliding was fuelled by his desire to experience the landscape of his native West Cornwall as completely as possible. During the 1950s, he produced radical, near-abstract paintings of the tough coastal landscape around the Penwith peninsula. One day in the summer of 1956 Lanyon was walking across a high cliff top when he looked up, saw three gliders soaring overhead and realised that this was the experience he needed. He began gliding seriously in 1959 and went solo for the first time in 1960, clocking up many flying hours over the next few years. Freed from a land-bound perspective, Lanyon poured his new gliding experiences into his art, producing paintings that offer a thrilling sense of his encounters with the land, sea and air, collapsing the multiple perspectives of his flights into each new composition. The paintings were also profoundly shaped by Lanyon’s new-found glider pilot’s knowledge of the character of the air – its different movements, textures and forces, as well as the dangers and life-lines that it presents as one navigates through the thermals and up-draughts that are the invisible map essential for the glider to successfully complete a flight. Lanyon’s gliding paintings stand as a unique achievement of twentieth-century art, reinventing and furthering the tradition of landscape painting in ways that can also be seen to engage deeply with the pressing existentialist concerns of the Post-War world. Sadly this remarkable project was cut short by Lanyon’s unexpected death in August 1964 whilst recovering from injuries sustained in a gliding accident.
I may have had some initial reservations about following Lanyon into the skies, but my day gliding was both enlightening and exhilarating. It is quite unlike the experience of powered flight, even in a small airplane. Rather than just enjoying the view of the land below from a stable altitude, in a glider one is fully immersed scanning both land and sky for signs of possible thermals, swooping around to feel them out and then being lifted up, enabling you to soar further afield. This unique experience of movement in all directions through space is fundamental to Lanyon’s gliding paintings and helps to explain why they are so unlike straightforward aerial views, so familiar from photographs or from peering out of the window whilst flying over Heathrow.
The Courtauld’s exhibition is the first devoted to Lanyon’s gliding paintings and is an opportunity to see this extraordinary body of work. It brings together major paintings from public and private collections internationally, some never before exhibited in this country, alongside a small group of his related constructions.
BARNABY WRIGHT (BA 1999, MA 2000, PhD 2005) DANIEL KATZ CURATOR OF 20TH CENTURY ART
Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings is on display at the Courtauld Gallery from 15 October 2015 until 17 January 2016. For more information visit courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2015/Lanyon
Watch Barney in action