Abstract Critical

Peter Lanyon: Mural Studies

Written by Emyr Williams

Peter LANYON, Charge 1962, gouache on paper, 41 1/2 x 112 1/2 in/, 105.5 x 286 cm

Peter LANYON, Charge 1962, gouache on paper, 41 1/2 x 112 1/2 in/, 105.5 x 286 cm

“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.

Peter LANYON, Untitled (Study for St Just) 1952, gouache on paper, 105 x 26 in/, 266.7 x 66 cm

Peter LANYON, Untitled (Study for St Just) 1952, gouache on paper, 105 x 26 in/, 266.7 x 66 cm

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.

Peter LANYON, Small Boats - Clevedon c.1964, charcoal on paper, 15 x 19 3/4 in/, 38.1 x 50 cm

Peter LANYON, Small Boats – Clevedon c.1964, charcoal on paper, 15 x 19 3/4 in/, 38.1 x 50 cm

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.

Peter LANYON, Bodmin Moor 18 June 1953, oil on masonite on board, 26 3/4 x 8 1/2 in/, 68 x 21.5 cm

Peter LANYON, Bodmin Moor 18 June 1953, oil on masonite on board, 26 3/4 x 8 1/2 in/, 68 x 21.5 cm

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.

Peter LANYON, Untitled (sketch for Liverpool University Mural: 'The Conflict of Man with Tides and Sands') 1960 gouache on paper, 93 x 198 1/4 in/, 236 x 503.5 cm

Peter LANYON, Untitled (sketch for Liverpool University Mural: ‘The Conflict of Man with Tides and Sands’) 1960 gouache on paper, 93 x 198 1/4 in/, 236 x 503.5 cm

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.

Peter LANYON, Untitled (sketch for Birmingham University mural) 1963, gouache on paper, 111 5/8 x 215 in/, 283.5 x 546 cm

Peter LANYON, Untitled (sketch for Birmingham University mural) 1963, gouache on paper, 111 5/8 x 215 in/, 283.5 x 546 cm

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?

Peter LANYON, Birdie 1962, Liquitex on paper, 42 x 100 in/, 106.7 x 254 cm

Peter LANYON, Birdie 1962, Liquitex on paper, 42 x 100 in/, 106.7 x 254 cm

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.

Peter LANYON, Shore Thing (San Antonio '63) opus 191 April 1963, gouache on paper, 10 x 13 3/4 in/, 25.4 x 35 cm

Peter LANYON, Shore Thing (San Antonio ’63) opus 191 April 1963, gouache on paper, 10 x 13 3/4 in/, 25.4 x 35 cm

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.

  1. nick moore said…

    John, from one old fashioned modernist to another, I feel the same as you about Lanyon. He and Hilton were beacons in St Ives and both are still inspirational as far as I am concerned.
    This was a very useful, if eclectic, exhibition, showing work mainly in gouache on paper, some charcoal sketches and a painting in liquitex from the 60s. The highlight was to see the two large scale mural sketches together, their sheer scale offering a different experience to other shows of his work such as the Tate St Ives retrospective 2010/11 or even the show at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, 2008/9 in which the Porthmeor mural and a preliminary sketch in gouache of the same size (approx 4ft x 30ft) was shown along with a selection of other paintings.
    The work in this exhibition from the early 50s, such as the four vertical ones from 52/53, are of the classic Lanyon heavily worked and hard won genre; while those of the 60 are more highly coloured landscape format in more separated, clearer red, yellow, blue and greens with heavy black lines – as Emyr mentions reminiscent of Miro. Of these latter, Birdie is very different in feel, with the explosive use of the acrylic and its viscosity….very different to the thinner quality of gouache in the other similar sized paintings….an experiment perhaps; as far as I know Lanyon didn’t use acrylic on his later canvases, he stuck to oil.

    Emyr states that ‘a move into fully abstract works was – maybe suspiciously – avoided. Instead he sought invention in his responses to the spaces he knew so well.’
    Lanyon was always wary of being labelled an abstract painter, he didn’t want to be mixed in with the Americans (though he respected Rothko, Kline and Motherwell) or the St Ives Society of Artists of whom he said ‘I fear a bogus return to prettiness acceptable to the cushion bred fancifuls of the elite…’ which echoes Hiltons remark about ‘Courtauld ninneys’…Lanyons responses were rooted in a hidden or buried landscape, merged with his inner self; but the paintings were not abstracted from the landscape, they were an embodied, felt experience of it. “I paint places but always the placeness of them” Lanyon wrote in a letter to Paul Feiler 1952; but also as Chris Stephens (1) points out “More than that, his concern of a subjective experience of a place means that at the heart of his work is an attempt to address the fundamental question of ones being-in-the-world….and that the paintings are as much about the body and the self as they are about landscape.”
    echoing Lanyon, “You might say that I am trying to paint my environment both inside and out” article by Lanyon, 1962, Guardian
    There are pictures of Lanyon working on the sketch for the Liverpool mural which show him perched on a scaffolding plank over the painting which is leaned up against the wall at an angle; he is holding onto a rope with one hand and using a long handled brush with the other; on his head is a black beret. These images could easily have turned him into a poster boy of St Ives Abstract Expressionism. Thankfully it didn’t happen. The work took place in a borrowed barn that was big enough to accommodate the huge painting. In terms of its handling and colour, the Liverpool sketch in the exhibition is so far removed from the final mural made of scores of small painted tiles; the palette of the sketch is in muted colours, limited to large brown and green areas with black gestural marks giving it dynamic structure, with the overall feeling of forces and energy, not an illustration of it but the felt experience of it. The actual mural is in the more recognisable 60s colours, red, blue and yellow with black, as is the sketch and the actual mural (oil on board) for Birmingham. The Liverpool sketch seems to mark the end of one way of painting and open the doors, via gliding, to another…

    I am interested that John said ‘I think that taking to the air literally changed the air and space in his paintings. Before gliding he was already using various perspectives in his interpretation of landscape, developed from his cubist earlier influences.’ To me it feels that when he started gliding in 1959, Lanyon started to lose contact with the ground, literally and with the ground of his painting. The palette changes, gets brighter, and the paintings open out; they are less dense, the paint more thinly applied and there is less overpainting. To me they are often less satisfying. They are more fluid and feel less hard won than earlier ones, so that rather than being immersed in the landscape he is detached from it; as he put it he was “able to experience my country from outside returning to land rather than emerging from inside.” I wonder about this connection with getting off the ground, being able to soar in the air and take a birds eye view; if the solitude and quiet loosened up his personal angst as well as the paintings. For both he and Hilton were renown for their battles with paint – ‘The abstract artist submits himself entirely to the unknown…he is like a man swinging out into the void’ as Hilton put it; Lanyon complained to Gabo ‘every work seems to reach the stage of utter hopelessness and blackness before some last weak effort pulls it into something.’

    Emyr, these paintings are earnest and have ambitions in them that are to be admired – but not for their innocence, for the sheer blood and guts that went into them.

    (1) Peter Lanyon, at the edge of landscape, Chris Stephens, 21 Publishing, 2000.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Nick, I enjoyed your highly informed response and you are clearly a fan. I am a little more ambivalent to his work, but take on board all your comments, nonetheless. I enjoyed the show but would only add that : crash bang wallop doesn’t always make a picture.

      • nick moore said…

        Emyr, I certainly agree, crash bang wallop doesnt always work..but in his case it was part of an intense process as can be seen from his prolific letter writing.

  2. Catherine Cullis said…

    In ‘Birdie’ I see a central linking, in gesture and shaper, suggesting a certain dynamic between spaces, or perhaps a dependence of energy and earth. There’s a sensation of wanting to let go but not.

    I think seeing Lanyan’s work in person, appreciating the scale, must be a worthwhile experience. Failing that, I am glad to have seen more of his work via this article, thanks.

  3. John Pollard said…

    Gimpel Fils are to be congratulated in bringing these works to the public. And thanks to Emyr for taking the time to write this helpful review.
    This is a worthwhile exhibition. I didn’t get an idea of Lanyon’s working process of constructing a mural (which didn’t bother me) so took the work as it needs to be taken – as individual pieces. As the subject suggests this exhibition is a bit like viewing pages taken from a sketchbook, sometimes a giant sketchbook. But sometimes sketchbooks are as good as artist’s finished pieces so this isn’t necessarily a problem.
    There is a real mix here, quality wise. I enjoyed the left hand wall as you walk in, including the giant energetic sketch with beautiful muted palette, the two long portrait gouache paintings which are more ‘pre-gliding Lanyon’, when he produced his lovely visceral sinewy, sometimes sludgy, paintings, often contrasting with varied greens and blues (check out the small phallic painting in the office). Although these two are not so muddy and retain space and light.
    In fact you can break this exhibition down to Lanyon’s best two ‘eras’. I think that taking to the air literally changed the air and space in his paintings. Before gliding he was already using various perspectives in his interpretation of landscape, developed from his cubist earlier influences.
    Downstairs there are a few drawings which didn’t do much for me but I liked ‘Birdie’, an example of how Lanyon could control hard, dark shapes, with subtle patches, bright contrasting drawing, and depth.
    Emyr points out that Lanyon’s work, and his attitude, was very rooted in landscape and I think that in terms of figuration he captured the wide variations of the physicality of a place, or a sense, feeling, of place.
    It is a shame that no-one else has posted something here. Perhaps this illustrates Lanyon’s low standing in ‘purer’ abstract circles? Shame, as I think at his best (a long period around 1951-63) Lanyon’s paintings, as ‘abstractions’, are up there with the best of post war art. In terms of manner and style, exploration and experimentation (e.g. his wonderful constructions), his relatively short journey as an artist can help us with ours.
    Perhaps I’m just old fashioned, in a modernist kind of way.