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Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings

Malcolm Doney

The Courtauld Gallery
Until January 17, 2016

Peter Lanyon may have taken to the sky, but he always kept one foot on the ground. Born in St Ives in 1918, he grew up surrounded by sea, sky and a rugged landscape scarred by the exhausted workings of tin mines.

His work came into its own in the 1950s, as he began to find a distinct, individual vision, shrugging off the influence of earlier mentors such as Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. During this decade, he painted painterly, abstracted landscapes, informed by his native environment. They were seldom conventional 'views', observed from a single vantage point - they were more impressionistic, combining a kind of patchwork of shape, colour and texture, drawn from his surroundings.

In the second half of the 50s, his handling of paint became looser, and his landscape references less obvious. This led to critics comparing him with his US contemporaries, the Abstract Expressionists - an association he rejected wholesale. He refused to be called an abstract painter, maintaining that he was a 'realist'. He said, 'It's impossible for me to make a painting which has no reference to the very powerful environment in which I live.'

The 'abstract' qualities were partly due to the fact that he eschewed classic composition: 'I am not interested in standing still in one position and I would use anything - bicycles, cars or aeroplanes - to explore my relationship to my environment.'

He didn't want to observe the landscape, he wanted to be part of it. He had long had a fascination with flying, and had joined the RAF during World War II, hoping to become a pilot, but persistent migraines grounded him. It wasn't until 1960 that he took up gliding, having spotted sailplanes soaring above him when out walking.

Gliding put him among the elements in a way that he had never been before, and sent his work off in an even more elusive direction. He compared being in the air to being on the sea, which for Lanyon could be read as a metaphor for 'human instability, waywardness, fickleness, mood and temper.' Wind and weather - when you are gliding - puts you at the mercy of such instabilities, demanding constant vigilance for your own wellbeing. It is a sad irony that Lanyon died in 1964 as the result of injuries from a gliding accident.

But there was something beyond watchfulness and control. Lanyon said: 'I have discovered since I began gliding that the activity is more sensual than I had guessed.' He talked of the moment when the launch cable detaches into free flight, and experiencing, 'a sense of breathlessness [and] attitude of wonder' akin to seeing a woman naked. He talked too of abandonment, of losing himself.

The 'airscapes' (Lanyon's own term) in this gem of an exhibition - the first to look primarily at his gliding paintings - provide a similar, visceral, sense of being airborne. You are not a detached observer, but a participant, surrounded, buffeted by the wind, taken up by thermals, dwarfed by the immensity of the sky. This sensation was important to Lanyon, who was profoundly influenced by Constable and Turner, both of whom, he said, 'grasped the significance of the vast'.

For Lanyon, immersion in the landscape was almost an article of faith. 'The present situation is one of involution,' he said. 'Landscape cannot any longer be governed by static horizons viewed from a fixed point. The person previously apart from nature now becomes the bearer of a whole journey, a complete experience.'

In this, he is a kind of spiritual cousin to the Romantic poets, with their attendant ideas of panentheism (all-in-God, or God-in all - not to be confused with pantheism), and the philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne whose thinking is foundational to process theology where dynamic change, even in God, is fundamental.

These paintings are heavenly, but not in the least otherworldly. They are full of human sensuality and emotion. And, standing in the Courtauld Gallery, I found myself in the sweep of the sky, following the arc of Lanyon's hand-flourished flight-path, agitated by the wind and jolted by turbulence. When I was a kid, I used to stretch my arms out like wings, and race about, swooping, banking like a Spitfire in a dogfight. Space, security and self-consciousness prevented me on this occasion. But I was elevated all the same.