‘I believe that landscape, the outside world of things and events larger than ourselves is the proper place to find our deepest meanings … I want to make the point that landscape painting is not a provincial activity … but a true ambition like the mountaineer who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them…’
(Peter Lanyon, Some Aspects in Modern British Painting: an Artist’s Point of View, lecture for the British Council in Czechoslovakia, 27th January 1964)
Fly Away is a seminal example of a series of works known as ‘Gliding Paintings’ by the Cornish artist Peter Lanyon, the recent focus of the Courtauld’s fantastic Soaring Flight exhibition (October 2015 - January 2016). Perhaps more so than any of the St Ives artists, Peter Lanyon is most intimately connected to the land, and in particular to the Cornish landscape. Travelling by foot, motorbike and then glider, he transcribed his experiences onto canvas. It is this final mode of transport, gliding, which produced arguably his most striking and successful work.
Lanyon began to train as a glider pilot in 1959, and it was a passion that tragically cut short his life: a gliding accident in 1964 resulted in his untimely death. In the five years that Lanyon flew gliders, however, he produced a large number of incredibly sophisticated works which record his experiences of flying among the elements. Often on a large scale, these works elide landscape painting with abstract gesture, producing works which occupy a realm of painting which is hard to specifically define: Lanyon himself insisted in no uncertain terms that he was not an abstract painter. Fly Away is typical of his gliding paintings in its ambiguity, filled with colours and shapes which seem to reference specific elements or landmarks, yet elude them too; a creamy white fills the canvas, suggestive perhaps of dense white clouds, through which emerge dark blues and blacks - a stormy sea, maybe, or dark stone walls glimpsed from above. Flashes of ochre and red punctuate the work, their geometric shapes evocative of the wings of the glider. Most dramatic of all is a single flash of yellow, piercing the dark blue like a fork of lightning, reminiscent of the ‘zips’ used by Barnett Newman. The huge scale of the work, and the strong, energetic brushstrokes which fill it give an impression of the fierce winds Lanyon would have battled, and of the sheer physicality that gliding involved.
The title of the present work, Fly Away, speaks, of course, of the desire to explore, to climb up into the heavens, soar above the fields, sea and land he knew so well: to seek out another realm, swiftly, quickly, daringly. The phrase ‘fly away’ has romantic, ethereal connotations, and tells of the fascination that gliding must have held for Lanyon. Indeed, in September 1961, the year the present work was executed, Lanyon was elected a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd for services to Cornish Art, and appropriately his Bardic name was 'Marghak an Gwyns', which translates as 'Rider of the Winds'. Lanyon was to write that: ‘I believe that landscape, the outside world of things and events larger than ourselves is the proper place to find our deepest meanings…I want to make the point that landscape painting is not a provincial activity as it is thought by many to be in the United States, but a true ambition like the mountaineer who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them. These things take us in to places where our trial with forces greater than ourselves, where skill and training and courage combine to make us transcend our ordinary lives’ (Peter Lanyon, ‘Some Aspects in Modern British Painting: An Artist’s Point of View’, lecture for the British Council in Czechoslovakia, 27th January 1964). This statement perfectly encapsulates Lanyon's aims and ambitions for the gliding paintings, and in the joyful abandon of Fly Away, Lanyon has certainly achieved his desire to transport the viewer into another realm.
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