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Flight of fancy: how aviation changed art for ever

What balloonists and then pilots saw from the air – the mountainous cloudscapes and the grand designs on the ground – still strike us as sublime. And as a current exhibition makes clear, flight changed art for ever. By Gillian Darley

In 1836, a hot air balloon flight broke all the records, covering almost 500 miles from London to central Germany in less than 20 hours. News of that journey into the unknown fired JMW Turner's imagination and he wrote to one of the pilots, Robert Hollond: "Your excursion so occupied my mind that I dreamt of it, and I do hope you will hold to your intention of making the drawing, with all the forms and colours of your recollection."

Turner's fascination with the extraordinary, evanescent architecture overhead, of the "parapets and turrets, batteries and bastions" that the balloonists saw, strikes a chord with us all. That view out of the plane window into a mountainous cloudscape or, coming in to land on a clear day, a glimpse of lovely yet inexplicable patterns, be they the sewage treatment beds of Slough or relentless Soviet era apartment blocks, can momentarily lift air travel from the humdrum to the near sublime. Not even Google Earth has yet sated our appetites.

In the current exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, Flight and the Artistic Imagination, many versions of reality contest with impressions and myths, with human aspirations and physical limitations. There's just one certainty: as a species, we are physiologically unable to fly. Goya's grim airborne figures leave viewers to draw their own conclusions. Were they soaring away into enlightenment or descending, irrevocably disillusioned, from some muddied utopia? Icarus, Mephistopheles and the Valkyries fall, saints and angels ascend either on wings or up Jacob's ladder to the certainty of heaven or cosmic oblivion.

In 1783 the first successful flight of a hot air balloon introduced the real, as opposed to imagined, overhead view. It suggested military potential, and by 1794 the French revolutionary Aerostatic Corps was ready for action. Later, it was from a balloon basket that Felix Nadar took the first known aerial photograph, a view of Paris in 1858. The aeroplane delivered a deliberate overhead perspective – which were to prove invaluable to many areas of study, from cartography and defence to archaeology and aesthetics.

That most lyrical pioneer pilot and writer on aviation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry saw that the aeroplane itself would quickly become "a tool, like a plough". And so, in the early 20th century, it did. As powered flight exploded the range and tempo of our physical reach and intensified our gaze, it simultaneously gave new angles on the familiar, and offered glimpses of the entirely unfamiliar.

In the first world war, Richard Carline of the Royal Flying Corps sketched the pock-marked, cratered scene at Albert from the air and then painted it. To quite different effect, the Russian supremacist Kasimir Malevich saw the potential of the aerial view, its elements abstracted. In 1926 the teachers at the Bauhaus proudly commissioned a night view of Gropius's new complex, sparkling with electricity; the Junkers factory was there, in Dessau. The company also loaned a plane from which the Bauhauslers – as the students were known – could shower presents down on Paul Klee's pristine Master's House in the woods to mark his 50th birthday. Unfortunately, several sheered through the flat roof. Flying, and the lens it provided to the world, was the ultimate response to the modernist (and futurist) dream, providing "a new standard of measurement, a new basis of sensation" as Le Corbusier wrote.

Corb immediately grasped the potential of flight and the splendour of the aeroplane itself, as an object, but it was not until he flew over Moscow in 1929 and the next year over Rio de Janeiro, sketchbook to hand, that he saw the revelatory potential of "a vast programme of organic town-planning". In the coming years he warmed to the theme, "the airplane eye … now looks with alarm at the places where we live, the cities where it is our lot to be." That scene was an indictment, and the festering old capitals must be "extricated from their misery, come what may. Whole quarters of them must be destroyed and new cities made."

But it was the Italian futurists who inaugurated an artistic movement dedicated to the dynamism of the air. Aeropittura, an expression of Futurism's second generation, required "a profound contempt for detail and a need to synthesise and transfigure everything", and was epitomised by the painter-pilot Tullio Cralis's troubling image Nose-diving on the City (1939).

The posturing and rhetoric, as well as the destructive energy, was essentially fascist. The contrived words and synthetic images of these artists would come to haunt the postwar world once the terrifying aerial views of Coventry, Dresden and Hiroshima emerged, a reality far beyond even the wildest polemic of Le Corbusier or the futurists.

In the 1930s, preservationists fighting the remorseless spread of arterial roads and inchoate development often took to the air. John Moore, a contributor to Clough Williams-Ellis's campaigning Britain and the Beast (1937), took off in a hired Tiger Moth to describe how towns and even villages were "nibbling their way outwards … as haphazard and casually as caterpillars nibbling at a leaf … the mess creeping along the sides of all the roads that radiated from the towns".

Stationed with the RAF near Norwich just after the war, the maverick 19-year-old flying officer Ian Nairn put his Meteor to unusual use, flying over Norfolk, seeking out unsuspected or lost buildings by the architect John Soane. When he found an exquisite overlooked garden building lurking in shrubbery, he immediately wrote to tell the bemused inspectress of the Soane Museum, Dorothy Stroud. In 1950, as now, architectural historians were usually on the ground, if not deskbound.

Turning to architectural journalism, Nairn was the author of the famous polemic Outrage (an outspoken report on unhindered urban sprawl from Southampton to Carlisle, published in 1955) and continued to use his pilot's licence for some years, frequently setting off with the in-house photographer, embarking on research from the air. Many architects trained in the postwar years had done their national service in the RAF, which had stoked a professional passion for the aerial view. It took Nairn to sound a warning: "Everything looks fine from the pilot's seat. The most sterile of formal schemes looks superb from a thousand feet on a sunny morning … alas, we are not birds, and neither is architecture just an exercise in solid geometry."

Of his generation of architects, Norman Foster has remained the most passionate about flying. The creator of Stansted airport, for me his finest work, chose the Boeing 747, the Jumbo jet, as his "building" when he took part in the BBC2 series Building Sites in 1991. Describing the plane, already more than 20 years old, as "awe inspiring", he extolled its style and beauty, noting that this had never compromised its functionality. More recently, on his 75th birthday Foster realised he had, by then, piloted 75 different types of aircraft and was hatching a plan to display them, as models, in his chateau in Switzerland.

Foster's latest and most ambitious hymn to the aerial view is his design and promotion of an airport island, floating in the Thames estuary. So far it has been blessed by Boris Johnson, but few others.

In Hiraki Sawa's video Dwelling, showing at Compton Verney, the empty rooms of an unexceptional west London suburban house fill with diminutive planes: they lift off, circle and land on kitchen surfaces and mattresses, and use the passage as a flight path. The relentless rituals and conventions of the daily traffic through Heathrow have been subverted to other ends.

The aerial view tends to offer a glimpse of the unknown, or at least an unfamiliar version of reality. The land artist James Turrell, also a pilot, captures a portion of sky, and frames it within a custom-made structure or an aperture such as a volcanic crater. At the other extreme is the almost unimaginable, such as the glorious image of Orion's Nebulae, photographed from Nasa's Hubble Space Telescope, as distant from us as the immersion of an adventuring balloon in a lyrical cloudscape was for Turner. The aeroplane may have been a tool, but the sky is still the limit.

Flight and the Artistic Imagination is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 30 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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