Centrifugal Force: Peter Lanyon’s Immersive Landscapes

A recent show at London’s Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, coinciding with a new catalogue raisonné, shows the artist mapping space from outside and within

Nestled away by the entrance to London gallery Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert’s recent Peter Lanyon exhibition – which was timed to coincide with the publication of Toby Treves’s magisterial Peter Lanyon: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings and Three-Dimensional Works (Modern Art Press, 2018) –  was a linocut: The Cornish Miner (1949). Depicting the cross-section of a tin mine in Penwith, the westernmost peninsula of Cornwall, it might have easily escaped notice. Indeed, it hardly looks like a work of Lanyon’s at all: he rarely employed this form, being so committed to the textures and depths of pigment; and it is straightforwardly representational in a way that his own landscapes never are. And yet, this linocut holds the key to Lanyon’s oeuvre.

godrevy-lighthouse.jpg

Peter Lanyon, Godrevy Lighthouse, 1949, oil on board, 52 x 27 cm. Courtesy: © Lanyon Estate / Modern Art Press 2018

Peter Lanyon, Godrevy Lighthouse, 1949, oil on board, 52 x 27 cm. Courtesy: © Lanyon Estate / Modern Art Press 2018

Lanyon was born in 1918 near St Ives, when it was still a fishing village rather than an art colony and tourist destination. As he entered adulthood, however, his home became the focal point for modernist art production in Britain, notably after Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth – along with the critic Adrian Stokes and the Russian émigré constructivist Naum Gabo – decamped to Cornwall at the beginning of World War II. Stokes would be the young Lanyon’s mentor, and Gabo an abiding inspiration. (Lanyon often produced three dimensional ‘constructions’ as studies for his large-scale paintings). Like Nicholson and Hepworth, Lanyon sought to reconcile post-cubism with the British landscape tradition and, from this tiny outpost, he too would become a major player in postwar international modernism – Mark Rothko said of him: ‘Upon seeing his work I felt he was, indeed, a poet.’ Lanyon’s Cornwall is not that of the artist-holidaymakers, and nor are his landscapes pastoral idylls. They are marked by the work of tin miners, farm labourers, fishing communities – ‘more ore than orchard’, as John Berger put it in an early review. His linocut has three layers, moving from the engine house down the mineshaft to the miners themselves below ground. Labour is unseen, he tells us; but the linocut can also be read as a diagram of Lanyon’s own painterly practice, where layers of impasto are worked up over a masonite board, only for this densely wrought surface to be scored with knifemarks, so the painting bears witness to the depths of its making.

the-cornish-miner-c.jpg

Peter Lanyon, The Cornish Miner, c.1949, linocut. Courtesy: Private collection

Peter Lanyon, The Cornish Miner, c.1949, linocut. Courtesy: Private collection

And there is a further layering at work, as the paintings superimpose different kinds of spatial experience and spatial representation upon one another. A painting like Godrevy (1949: of the lighthouse opposite St Ives, made famous by Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel) blends an aerial view of lighthouse, island and promontory, with views from the land. Space can be mapped from outside, or from within – Lanyon brings both into the same composition. Trevalgan (1951) takes this further, with its thick blue and white brushes both serving as a compositional frame-within-a-frame and depicting the sea surrounding the peninsula; different textures and shades of green, which initially come across as abstract explorations of form and colour, start to evoke the layout of fields and hedgerows. At first glance these paintings are difficult, recalcitrant, rebarbative even; Lanyon spoke of attempting to get two miles’s worth of horizon into one composition and they have a centrifugal force that can feel cluttered, breathless. The intensity of surface effects never lets up; the monochrome greys and greens are unremitting. Similarly, the paintings cluster together elements that are referential (a flower here, a footpath there), symbolic, gestural: Lanyon is fascinated by how we orient ourselves in the places we inhabit but refuses to allow his viewers a secured foothold for orienting themselves in his paintings.

Peter Lanyon, Wheal Owles, 1958, oil on board, 122 x 183 cm. Courtesy: © Lanyon Estate, © Modern Art Press 2018

Peter Lanyon, Wheal Owles, 1958, oil on board, 122 x 183 cm. Courtesy: © Lanyon Estate, © Modern Art Press 2018

Peter Lanyon, Wheal Owles, 1958, oil on board, 1.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: © Lanyon Estate / Modern Art Press 2018

Given his interest in mapping his landscapes from above, it is perhaps no surprise Lanyon would take up gliding, as he did in 1959 (and which led to his death, from injuries sustained in a crash-landing, aged just 46). And yet, the gliding paintings he would produce – perhaps the most concerted, and distinctive, project of ‘weather painting’ since J.M.W. Turner – are themselves less interested in aerial views of the land than his earlier landscapes were; rather, they conjure up the experience of bodily immersion in thermals and updraughts. Both composition and materiality of the paintings shift decisively at this point: whereas Lanyon’s painting almost exclusively used a masonite board support beforehand, in April 1959 he suddenly embraced canvas. The brushstrokes soften, the compositions become gesturally freer, and yet more focused; more dynamic, and yet pervaded by a stillness that is quite new.

saracinesco-1961-62.jpg

Peter Lanyon, Saracinesco, 1961, oil on canvas, 1.8 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: © Lanyon Estate / Modern Art Press 2018

Peter Lanyon, Saracinesco, 1961, oil on canvas, 1.8 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: © Lanyon Estate / Modern Art Press 2018

This exhibition made clear how Lanyon’s shift in composition was linked to a change in material support; yet it did so by leaving out four crucial years in his development. However, Treves’s catalogue raisonné fills in this period, and indeed everything else. It is an exemplary achievement in art scholarship: in addition to uncovering lost works and tracking sales histories, it provides unobtrusive critical analysis, at once meticulous and self-effacing. It was ten years in the making, and what is striking is how in this time Lanyon’s reputation has been transformed (not least by the 2015 Courtauld exhibition ‘Soaring Flight’, which Treves co-curated). Lanyon’s concern with landscape and place speaks to our current moment, and as we reevaluate the history of 20th century painting, Lanyon is sure to figure ever more prominently.

Main image: Peter Lanyon, Bojewyan Farms, 1951-2, oil on board, 1.2 x 2.4 m. Courtesy: © Lanyon Estate, British Council Collection

David Nowell Smith is Senior Lecturer in Poetics at the University of East Anglia, UK. He is currently co-curating exhibitions on the poet W.S. Graham at Pier Arts Centre, Orkney, and the Poetry Library, London Southbank Centre, UK, to take place in the autumn.

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018