“I’m beginning to like mural painting more and more. It suits landscape painting and modern architecture – the modern glass buildings…Part of the challenge of the mural is to understand something bigger than yourself”. So spoke Peter Lanyon in 1963.
The works on show at Gimpel Fils focus on this little known aspect of his work. The exhibition includes the final large-scale gouache sketches for the Liverpool and Birmingham murals, as well as other studies and work derived from Lanyon’s exploration of the medium. These large works have a relatively understated sense of colour overtly informed by landscape signage (punctuated by the odd primary) and all sharing black as a common unifier.
These are not abstract paintings, rather, abstracted paintings. I prefer the noun to the verb for what it’s worth. They are made and presented to us in terms of place. Lanyon died tragically from a gliding accident and as we know the aerial views that flying gave him played such a catalyst in his compositions and approaches. He would talk to his students of being more inventive in selecting viewpoints too, getting them to see the landscape in new ways and engage with its rhythms and seasons. A born and bred Cornishman, ambivalent towards St Ives or indeed New York as a designator of an approach. Cornwall was in his blood and its vistas embedded in his psyche. Not just the pictorial but the history and mythology of the place – its industries and the subsequent dwindling of them, the political and social consequences of change, natural environments and one’s sense of place in the world. All these eclectic factors fed into the ambitions he held for his work.
After seeing and possibly gaining a confirmation from the 1956 Tate Exhibition (which included Abstract Expressionist paintings), Lanyon gradually employed a more gestural open-ended brushstroke based painting, sweating out his early constructivist works. However a move into fully abstract works was - maybe suspiciously – avoided. Instead he sought invention in his responses to the spaces he knew so well.
The works on show are large and include several totem-like paintings with thinner washed on drawing in a sometimes almost phosphorescent light or contrasting black line. Shapes, figures, buildings, landscape all threaten to overpower but eventually get subsumed into the paint and design. A sketch for a mural at Birmingham University is the largest work in the show, at some 5.5 metres by almost 3 metres high. It seems to owe much to Matisse’s monumental Bathers by a River in its use of black and semi-architectonic space. Many of the works have a sketchy working out-ness about them (hence the show’s title). For all their unpredictable gymnastic viewpoints though, they actually feel quite conventionally weighted. Looking at the world upside down doesn’t seem to guarantee the same spatial surprise in a painting.
The other massive work The Conflict of Man with Tides and Sands, again 5m wide, is a case in point: huge gestural marks that crash about breaker-like, are impressive as physical actions, and their colouring in silvery turquoises, greyed blues, earths and creams rams the point home; this is the sea, the ozone and the beach, the earth in all its power; it’s a landscape: but one that is thus bottled in feel rather than fully synthesised. Not at all as invigorating as the real thing… How could it be? It would be fascinating to compare this with a Constable sketch of the beach – I think you get my (longshore) drift. Nature can’t, nor needn’t be, theatrically contrived, nor isolated as pockets of experience. It will come through and inform without any need for second guessing or indeed any presupposed strategy. These paintings are earnest though and have ambitions in them that are to be admired – for their innocence maybe?
Black is used in so many works as I mentioned earlier as a unifier, yet it sometimes looked unwieldy, mushed in on top in feverish ways with loops and animated sweeps. This has a tendency to produce contained spaces with awkward gaps. Birdie could easily be cut in half to produce two works. At other times, the blacks nodded towards Miro with his equally brutal line. Yet whereas Miro would use deep blues to suggest imaginary cosmic worlds, Lanyon checks any such flights of fancy and uses the raw paper to temper and return us to the known rather than float off into the unknown.
One of my favourite works was a small gouache called Shore Thing with a lovely red, black and delicate blue wash. It looked unforced, immediate and spatially inventive – inky-like brushstrokes which held they pace and made their space: the land, the sea, the air - it was all there.
For all Lanyon’s almost worrying concerns for his land, his culture and its fragility, these works are hugely optimistic. The grandeur of Cornwall clearly intoxicated him and through this sense of place and bird’s eye views of it he – ironically – found his terra-firma. The Welsh are cousins of the Cornish and we have a word to describe this sense of belonging to a particular place - “Hiraeth”; it’s not readily translatable… the same I think applies to the Cornish landscape.
Peter Lanyon: The Mural Studies, Gimpel Fils, 30 Davies Street, London W1, 28 November-18 January 2014.