Andrew Lambirth

Taking to the skies

In the first retrospective of his work for nearly 40 years, Peter Lanyon (1918–64) is given the kind of recognition long his due.

Taking to the skies
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In the first retrospective of his work for nearly 40 years, Peter Lanyon (1918–64) is given the kind of recognition long his due.

In the first retrospective of his work for nearly 40 years, Peter Lanyon (1918–64) is given the kind of recognition long his due. A major figure in the St Ives group, his work holds its own on an international stage even though it remains rooted in his native Cornwall. He was an inventive and innovative painter who conjured up the sensation of being in certain places and experiencing particular weather conditions. This was not an art bound to the earth’s surface, and it began by delving beneath it, with the Cornish miners, and increasingly rising above it — quite literally — into the air in a glider. Lanyon took up gliding in 1959, and he died aged only 46, following a gliding accident. The question on everyone’s lips — what might he have done had he lived? — is answered in part by the unsettling work in the last room of this exhibition.

Lanyon believed that the artist occupied an important and responsible position in society ‘at the centre of the new and emerging myths of our time’. He wasn’t interested in the self-indulgent artist, obsessed with autobiographical musings. For him the artist was ‘not just a recorder of impulses but also a responsible person, responsible to man. That means to man’s aspirations as well as his aberrations.’ In pursuit of his investigation into man’s condition in relation to his surroundings, Lanyon moved rapidly through a stylistic evolution that encompassed cubist-inflected subterranean imagery and his own interpretations of tachism and abstract expressionism. Although often compared to de Kooning, his work has a potent individuality that makes it hard to categorise.

For a change, all the galleries at Tate St Ives have been commandeered for Lanyon, so he shares the space with no one else. The work is arranged chronologically and has been well and intelligently selected. Lanyon’s sculptures have been given equal prominence with his paintings throughout, and there are a couple of his finest in the first gallery — ‘White Track’ and ‘Box Construction No 1’, both dating from 1939–40. This was when he was first finding his feet as an artist, and much under the influence of Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo and Adrian Stokes. His early paintings are reminiscent of Barbara Hepworth or Gabo sculptures, enclosed pregnant forms or images of underground chambers. The big painting in the first gallery is ‘Porthleven’, done for the Festival of Britain in 1951, but some of the smaller works, such as ‘Portreath’ and ‘Carthew’, have a greater poignancy, however pale and abraded.

Downstairs, in what is unpoetically called Lower Gallery 2 and is actually a beautiful semi-circular viewing gallery for Porthmeor beach, the work gets more gestural and more abstract, in fact more like Lanyon’s contemporaries William Scott and Roger Hilton. Lanyon did not consider his paintings to be truly abstract, and their content remains closely linked to the Cornish landscape and to the human figure. Look at the lively brushing of ‘Farm Backs’ and ‘Inshore Fishing’, both 1952, or the more heated palette and richer textures of ‘Primavera’ and ‘Saracinesco’ of the following year. Here, too, is ‘Europa’, a massive reclining nude, for which he made three sculptures, the two survivors positioned near the painting.

Go upstairs again for the suite of three galleries which show Lanyon moving swiftly through a number of different painterly incarnations before ending his career far too soon. Blue starts to penetrate the mind here. It will become the most salient colour of Lanyon’s mature palette, a key perhaps to intensities of mood, but surely more to do with the increasingly airborne nature of his vision. The abstracted landscape of ‘St Ives Bay’ and ‘Wheal Owles’ gives way accordingly to the more elemental vision of ‘High Wind’ and the dynamic vortex of ‘Rosewall’ (1960). By now Lanyon had begun gliding, and the impact is evident in such paintings as ‘Thermal’ and ‘Soaring Flight’.

Red also begins to assume a greater importance in the paintings — as edging or accent or outline. Lanyon’s assemblages have now become shards of coloured glass and off-cuts of wood, studio detritus thrown together to provide clues for paintings, and it’s possible to see their forms transfigured in a painting such as ‘Antigone’ (1962). By the last room, red is counterpointing the blue, in my least favourite painting ‘Saltillo’, and in ‘Glide Path’. ‘Clevedon Bandstand’ (1964) looks oddly like a washing machine, with its white oval superimposed on an upside-down black pedestal form, and ‘Lomnica (Marica)’ brings ribbons of lilac to the red and green controversy. This last gallery looks very fresh and compelling, as Lanyon worked at full throttle: inventive, uncompromising and very much pushing the boundaries of his art.

These paintings are difficult to assimilate and take time to cast their spell. Lanyon’s later work combines a thinner application of paint with a greater build-up of surface in the form of collaged objects that complicate the structure of these semi-relief works. The colours become increasingly synthetic, and the Arctic blues I personally find so hard to take are joined by pale violet and harsh green. The white priming often shows through or beside the paint. The visitor may well benefit from lingering in the last two galleries, or returning to them having completed the circuit of the exhibition. The longer you look, the more coherent and convincing — and utterly strange — these paintings appear. Originality pulses out of them.

The exhibition is curated by the Tate’s Chris Stephens, who has made a particular study of Lanyon for more than 20 years. He has opted to focus on the technical aspects of the artist’s work, rather than responding to what Lanyon himself felt was important – his subject matter, and its relationship to his beloved Cornwall. Stephens has chosen this route in order to locate Lanyon more securely within the context of international modernism, a context that attaches greater importance to the formal or abstract aspects of art, rather than to what are perceived as such provincial and old-fashioned matters as landscape and spirit of place. Yet without that umbilical relationship to a particular landscape, Lanyon’s art would never have existed, and to assess it in purely formal terms is to diminish it.

Stephens contends that Lanyon’s constructions ‘were some of the most original works of art of their time’. The only precedents he finds for them are among the work of Picasso and Schwitters, yet surely they are only a development of the collage and relief technique prevalent among such contemporaries as Eileen Agar and Margaret Mellis. Lanyon, who was in the RAF during the war, recorded that ‘a mentality common to many of the air force fitters and riggers was a kind of beachcombing, to see what was interesting or valuable and good salvage...This finding something to make into something else was a fundamental part of my existence.’ It was an attitude easily adapted to his art. Lanyon saw his constructions as essential to the development of particular paintings, as preparatory studies. It is his paintings that command our attention: they are the peak of his very considerable achievement and the crown of this magnificent exhibition.