Fine Arts: The Cornish artist who fell from the heavens

Soaring Flight (1960) by Peter Lanyon

Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings
Courtauld Gallery, London, until January 17

Courtauld Gallery, London, until January 10

When Peter Lanyon flew in his glider, he yearned to be intimate with the air as it rushed over his vessel: suspending, hoisting, buffeting him in the sky, like the contact of a living being. He found that this non-motorised form of flight was “more sensual than I would have guessed”, just as the sea was “closest to our instability, waywardness, fickleness, mood and temper”.

With the Soaring Flight show on the Courtauld Gallery’s second floor, Lanyon unloads a cargo of shimmering, coarse-brushed blue canvasses that slow us to a summer’s pace after the scary, amber-cement rush of the Strand.

The eponymous Soaring Flight, with its coast-border lines, has an azure feeling of grazed-past air. The painting Calm Air depicts in one corner a network of blue lines. One senses the pliancy of a blue cat’s cradle, like an elastic nest of tenderness.

Lanyon, who was born in Cornwall in 1918, was the only Cornish member of the post-war St Ives school which included Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. From 1960 to 1964 he embarked on his gliding pictures after developing an interest in flight in his art.

Proust, in Sodom and Gomorrah, wrote of an experience he had on horseback when he first encountered a flying machine. He wondered at the airman’s freedom, who “seemed uncertain of his course: I felt therefore lay before him ­– before me, had not habit made me a prisoner – all the routes in space, in life itself”.

Lanyon was to share the fate of another aviator, Saint-Exupéry, when he died as
a result of gliding in 1964. Many have described, or even painted what they see from a plane; but in the aviator’s relationship with the sky, the art created becomes very different. Saint-Exupéry described how a coming bank of cloud indicated a thermal, a sign from the gods of an obstacle to be overcome.

However, as he flew a motorised plane, he resorted to “exterior” descriptions: rain-funnels as columns; storm clouds as the arches between the columns. Lanyon’s gliding paintings are intimate visions of the artist within the weather systems, of his mind’s rapport within these equally mobile, volatile conditions. For him, like Constable’s Brighton seascapes, or the Romantic Turner’s pathetic fallacy, the mind was a mirror of the sky.

Perhaps these visions are slightly outmoded in the age of mindfulness: with the idea of a tethered mind, where the voice of the subconscious is visible to the rational mind, in ways that we can respond to in positive ways.

Elsewhere in the Courtauld, in Butler Ildiko’s Panorama exhibition, there is a nice drawing by Canaletto, a double-panelled pencilling of the Prato della Valle square in Padua.

A truly massive piece of town planning, the square must cover several acres of grass, with parmesan-textured churches and duomos on either side. Canaletto’s is a beautifully detailed, delicate depiction.