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Flight exhibition reveals sense of wonder in the artistic imagination : RowlandsModernArt.com
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Flight exhibition reveals sense of wonder in the artistic imagination

| July 2, 2012 | Comments

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Flight Exhibition and the Artistic Imagination, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 30 September,

 

For centuries artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Francisco Goya looked at the skies and dreamed of flying.

But when, in the 18th century, the first balloons took off and artists really could have soared into the clouds, they stayed resolutely earthbound.

“It is strange, photographers were up there from the start, but I know of no artist who seized those earliest opportunities,” said Sam Smiles, professor of art history at Exeter University and co-curator of the first exhibition in the UK on art and the history of flight.

“We know that Turner questioned closely somebody who had been on a balloon flight, but though he was certainly not a timid figure he never did it himself.”

It was left to people such as the intrepid Mr Harper, a Birmingham hairdresser, who in 1784 took off from a tennis court and flew for 50 miles, and James Glaisher, a Wolverhampton meteorologist who flew to 30,000 feet (9,144 metres), to publish accounts of their mind-blowing adventures.

Glaisher passed out, while his pilot climbed on to the outside of the balloon and freed a trapped valve with his teeth because his hands were frozen.

The exhibition, at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, includes the earliest views from the air ever published: in 1786 a landowner from Chester, Thomas Baldwin, wrote of his experience in Airopaidia: “A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture.”

The plates have a fine black line representing the balloon’s flight, which readers were supposed to follow looking through a tube of paper to get the full effect of the views shared by man for the first time with angels or seagulls.

The exhibition begins ominously with Icarus, including a ravishing paper cut by Matisse, and ends with Downed, a blood-red crashed fighter plane made from women’s jumpers, including the favourite cardigan of the artist Al Johnson’s mother as she always wore it, with two buttons undone.

“We start with aspiration, and we end with – the end,” Smiles said.

The threat was always part of the thrill.

One of Alfred G Buckham’s ravishing cloud photographs, taken in the 1930s from planes he flew himself, shows the gleaming British airship R100.

When R101 crashed over France the entire British airship programme was abandoned, and R100 was sold for scrap.

There is a flying Saint Francis, said to have been capable of levitating two metres when deep in prayer; Yuri Gagarin, the first man to get beyond even the clouds, by Joe Tilson; and Mark Wallinger’s Angel, in which the artist ascends via the giant escalator at Angel tube station.

“Artists have preserved that sense of wonder which we all ought to have, and they want to find ways of getting it back in their work,” Smiles said.

“I’m going on holidays next week, by plane. I’m going to try and keep the vision of this exhibition in my mind, instead of fretting as usual about luggage and duty free.”

Flight Exhibition and the Artistic Imagination, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 30 September,


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