Peter Lanyon

On painter Peter Lanyon and articulating movement

Originally published by Dance UK, the then advocacy body for dance, in 2010

I came across Peter Lanyon's paintings 10 years ago. At the time I had a conundrum, I was looking at a career in the visual arts but my natural affinity was with moving in the world, not looking at it. My only arena for this, was ballet and I was awful at it, my teacher often having to disguise her horror at my, imprecise, joy in throwing myself around. There were no release based contemporary dance classes on the Isle of Wight where I had grown up or things may have been different. I spent a lot of time outdoors, on the beach and I wanted to paint how it felt to physically be in landscape, rather than what it looked like, viewed from a fixed point. Peter Lanyon did just that and I felt such an affinity with him that at 18, I made a decision. I moved 300 miles away from home, eager to experience what he had, paint what he had, and immerse myself in his homeland, Cornwall.

So why am I writing about this for dancers? If you have been following this series you will know that I now make movement as well as visual art. Furthermore Peter Lanyon was interested above all in movement, and his articulation of sensation and the effects of gravity on the human body are something that I think many dancers who have studied contemporary techniques will relate to. The friend that I went to see the retrospective with, a painter and designer/ maker for interdisciplinary theatre, was struck by how odd it was for a man so preoccupied with movement, to have chosen painting as his media of choice. Peter Lanyon was interested in exploring 'forces greater than ourselves'. On flying a glider plane he observed that 'sitting in the air you are sitting in all dimensions'. He developed an abstracted visual language to express sensations, the idea of becoming a bird or understanding the way air moves up the cliff.

These are all plainly recognisable as movement themes. Those of us trained to be aware of what is happening in our bodies from hour to hour will know that the experience of walking up a hill happens as much in ones legs as in ones eyes. Your posture shifts as you begin the incline, you feel the muscles work as you reach the brim, and finally there is a pull in your stomach and dizziness which pulls you towards the ground as you look over the edge of the cliff. This is all physical information, coming from the body as a whole, not just the eyes looking out over a view. This was exactly what Peter Lanyon was doing everyday to inform his work, he experienced the landscape on foot, whizzing round on his bicycle (sketch book tied to the handle bars) and soaring in the glider plane which was to lead to his death in 1964.

All of the shapes in Peter Lanyon's paintings and constructions are off kilter, unstable, and if they were existing in real space, very rarely would they balance at all without momentum applied to them. He wanted your eyes to move across the surface of the work as it would when following a bird across the sky, as close to moving as you could get with just the eyes. Looking at his work is an active experience, the solidity of the paintings and objects virtually unnoticeable as you circle your eyes and body around his works, bending, leaning, ducking to peer through things. This is an outcome very similar to what William Forsythe has set out to do with his Choreographic Objects. These, in brief, are objects that make the viewer do a certain 'choreography' when experiencing them, making the viewer move in a certain pattern around them (to be discussed further in a future article).

In the centre of each gallery were a selection constructions that Peter Lanyon made to explore ideas and then to paint from. To me it seems that in these constructions he was pinning down his physical experience down in a tangible, static, form so that the could understand it before translating it into painting in a dynamic way. A process of solidifying a physical experience to be able to articulate it and then dissolving it again into movement, having got to grips with it, very similar to the way that one might watch movement material back on a camcorder to see what has come out of an improvisation.

Lanyon articulated gravity, the effects of altitude and turbulence on the body, as someone who had really felt these sensations. He recreated what he had experienced so that the viewer too can feel the jolt as the plan drops through the air and thuds against the next thermal.

So to return to my friends point, why did he choose painting, why not film? Lanyon lived in Cornwall, surrounded by the mining industry that was in decline. He was a working man and from a family that had relatively limited resources. Commercial painting was really the only viable option for him, and inspired by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepwoth, who fled to the safety of Cornwall during the war, he decided to make a go of it. 

As I started out as a painter, heavily under the influence of Lanyon, then later trained in dance to deepen my research, I left the show wondering is movement my subject matter or my form? It seems to play a part in both, each art form giving opportunities that the other does not.

I recently met Marin Creed, during the Big Intensive for choreographers at Sadler's Wells Jerwood Studio, who said that he chose visual art because it seemed to encompass everything, with the broadest most flexible set of rules. He has also recently been collaborating with dance people, making a work about ballet, in which he obsessively orders and structures movement patterns, in the same way as he is well know for doing with objects. If Lanyon was to work with dance people, I think he would be in contemporary release based class, rolling, sliding and twisting in space like a ball tossed on the sea, following the flow, swing and momentum of the bodies centre of gravity, shifting as it travels through space.

I could spend hours experiencing the momentum of a turn, a change of direction mid air, the exillaharation of a barrel jump, the shape and form this creates in my body has begun to sneak into my art work. Geometry has appeared for the first time, twists, rolls of pliable mateiral, tension and knots, things in counterbalance against oneanother, objects on the brink of collapse only held together by momentum, like a mass of small objects held together in a shoal as they undulate through the swell. Each art form I proactive in informs the other and at present they seem to be developing in conversation with each other, so for the moment I have decide to let them be. 

The complete set of writing that Dance UK publised is below: 

/A visit to Siobhan Davies Dance Company

// Coffee with Stephanie Rosenthal, curator of MOVE: Choreographing You at the Hayward Gallery

// A conversation with Siobhan Davies about dance thinking

// Falling in love with another art form Yvonne Rainer and my divorce from painting 

// Who wears the crown? Artist Lawrence Kavanagh and four choreographers take on jealousy and authorship