Climb Out is a key example from the series of works by Lanyon known as ‘the gliding paintings’, recently given their long-deserved due at the Courtauld Institute’s critically acclaimed exhibition, Soaring Flight. Painted from 1959 until the artist’s untimely death in 1964 (following a gliding accident), these works channel Lanyon’s experience of taking to the skies from the tiny Perranporth airstrip, perched on a cliff-top on the exposed northern coast of the Penwith peninsular. In the five years that Lanyon flew gliders, he logged some 385 flights – or 57 hours in the air, 46 of those solo. This is not a vast amount by the standards of committed glider pilots, but it was still an impressive amount of ‘studio time’ spent encompassed by the elemental forces that he had sought to understand and represent in his painting from the early 1950s.
Lanyon had always wanted to paint the experience of the world around him, seen from above and below, in the mind’s eye, across time and place: ‘The thing that I’m interested in… is that there’s a place or a hill or a rock, or something like that, the thing that I have experienced that I am able to make into something new which is an equivalent of that…In the end the whole picture has to be that. It hasn’t to represent it, I don’t mean photographic representation… it has to be so charged with that experience that it is, the whole self: it will give back that experience to somebody else’ (The Artist, interviewed (along with Alan Davie and William Scott) by David Sylvester, for the BBC, 19th June 1950, Tate Archive (TAV 214AB)).
For him, it was ‘impossible… to make a painting which has no reference to the very powerful environment in which I live… I’m not interested in standing still in one position. And I would use anything – bicycles, cars or aeroplanes – to explore my relationship to the environment’ (British Council recorded talk, 1963, Tate Archive, TAV 526AC). In the years prior to 1959, a title such as ‘Climb Out’ would have referenced something earth-bound, such as Cornwall’s long tradition of mining, whose physical impact on the landscape Lanyon had charted in his earliest mature works. However, with the gliding paintings many of the titles refer to specific flying manoeuvres, albeit then made metaphor when allied to the powerful energy of the image: here the title and the strong red diagonal stands for a sharp elevation, at take-off (always nerve-wracking for a glider pilot) or when the glider hits a thermal. This red flash cuts across the black and white circle that maps (basically, succinctly) the path of a flight (as he had in one of the earliest gliding paintings, Solo Flight), on which Lanyon has placed two markers (circle and triangle), so crucial in navigation in a craft with no GPS and just a paper map. The left hand quadrant is full of sky, but banded too with green for fields and an ochre strip of beach; to the right, the land continues, scored and pitted, although in the sumptuous pinks and oranges Lanyon frees himself into the realm of pure abstraction.