From the late 1940s onwards, Lanyon had sought to create a very personal manner of painting which not only changed the way we look at representations of landscape, but one which extended our interpretation of the landscapes themselves. Whilst ostensibly an abstract manner, Lanyon himself rejected the burden of abstraction, preferring to think of himself as a landscape painter fully in the romantic tradition. His work combined notational references, history and myth in a way which was entirely his own.
Lanyon's move towards a more abstracted depiction of the Cornish landscape had developed during the 1950s but in the second half of the decade new elements began to appear. It would seem that, like many of his contemporaries, growing awareness of painting in America was beginning to play a role, and for Lanyon, certain events need to be mentioned. Whilst he was already aware of some of Pollock's work from his trip to Italy in 1948, the 1956 Tate Gallery exhibition, Modern Art in the United States, was much more important, giving a tantalising snapshot of contemporary American painting. Other artists, such as William Scott and Alan Davie were already exhibiting in New York and they in turn brought back reports of new developments. However, in 1957, Lanyon made the trip himself to New York for his first U.S. exhibition. The exhibition, at the Catherine Viviano Gallery, brought Lanyon some good reviews but the visit seems to have been most important for the opportunity to make contact with American artists. He met Motherwell and Gottlieb, the critics Clement Greenberg and Dore Ashton and was later to become friends with Rothko and de Kooning. Indeed in the late summer of 1958, Rothko visited St.Ives and he and Lanyon searched West Penwith for a disused chapel for Rothko to decorate.
The influence of these new exposures on Lanyon's painting begins to make itself seen almost immediately. Although it has become commonplace to discuss elements of Abstract Expressionism in Lanyon's work of this time, this rather misses the essential differences between the two forms of art. For Lanyon, his experience of American painting seems to imbue his work with a new expansiveness and a sense of space, bringing the gestures that create the work to the fore and making them an integral part of the experience of the landscape transmitted to the viewer via the painting. There is also a brightening and simplification of his palette, with fresher blues, greens and yellows beginning to become more dominant and the earthier colours of his earlier painting falling away.
The present painting falls fully into a period of important transition for Lanyon. Whilst it had been long recognised by critics, particularly Patrick Heron and Clement Greenberg, that his work was intimately bound with the landscape of the West Penwith area, and drew strongly on it for his inspiration, in the later years of the 1950s he began to move his painting away from one where it was the land itself which formed its core to a manner which attempted to capture the momentary qualities of the dramatic weather effects seen there. A keen walker and native Cornishman, Lanyon scoured the coastal landscape of the peninsula, revelling in the swiftly changing conditions and even conquering his deep fear of heights to walk the cliff tops in storms and gales, and in the later 1950s even taking up gliding as a means to more fully experience the whole landscape.
Paintings such as Calvary exemplify this bolder manner. Physically imposing, the painting has a pronounced vertical emphasis and by the careful use of colour, gesture and composition, the viewer is drawn into its heart, and thus into the experience of the landscape the artist is aiming to transmit. The titles Lanyon used at this time tended to be more descriptive than the place names he had used earlier (e.g. Silent Coast 1957, Long Sea Surf 1958 and Low Tide 1959). However, the choice of the title Calvary and the network of vigorous dark brushstrokes overlaying the composition hints at the spirituality which Lanyon had always sought to bring to his painting.
In his earlier painting St.Just of 1953, Lanyon had commented that during the painting of the picture he had felt himself 'lain across the arms' of the Crucifixion and in Calvary, which in its colouring and intensity has an affinity with early states of St.Just, a similar sense of involvement is clear. However, it should be remembered that the painting was produced as Lanyon's submission for a Contemporary Art Society exhibition, The Religious Theme, to be held at the Tate Gallery in 1958. Whilst there is no direct evidence that this was the case for Lanyon, we know that other St.Ives painters countered a curatorial debate about the validity of including abstract works by giving their paintings overtly religious titles. However, the presence of a spiritual element is clear from a letter which Lanyon sent to fellow painter Paul Feiler dated 20th May 1958:
'Mine is also a Calvery (sic)...I realise that's what it is...I have also had a very grim time painting it and trying to avoid self pity or any type of pity. In the end it arrived out of hopelessness and I have a new sort of dislike for it...for the inadequacy of what it says. However, I suspect it will be too big to hang – like sorrow itself.'
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