It’s a sad fact that among the holiday crowds at airports, the only people who are genuinely excited are the very young. Bless them; they still think flying is an adventure. They don’t mind the mind-numbing queues, the ghastliness of the other passengers who shove past you to get the best seats, the maddening sing-song of the safety officer’s announcements. When the engines finally roar at take-off, their eyes light up with excitement. They realise that something miraculous is about to happen; we just carry on reading the papers.
And yet for most of human history, flying has aroused feelings of awe and desire and fear. Just how deep those feelings run can be seen at a marvellous exhibition, which is among the best summer shows anywhere. It’s at Compton Verney, a fine converted Georgian mansion set in beautiful Capability Brown-designed grounds in Warwickshire. Entitled Flight and the Artistic Imagination, it explores artists’ responses to the enchanting idea of “loosing the surly bonds of earth” and floating up above the clouds. There’s a fantastical vision on paper by Leonardo da Vinci, imagining what the Tuscan plains would look like from several hundred feet up. And a painting by the Spanish artist Zurbarán shows St Francis of Assisi’s wonder at his own levitation, at the moment he receives the stigmata.
Not all the images are enchanting. Icarus tempted fate by flying too close to the sun, and his tragic fall is represented twice in the show, once by the Dutch printmaker Hendrik Goltzius, and again, three and a half centuries later, in a tremendous print by Matisse. Goya’s Where There’s a Will There’s a Way is a sinister vision of man-like creatures in flight, wings pinned to their backs.
What Goya’s image suggests is that flight was an object of superstition as well as wonder. By trying to fly, men risk becoming monsters as well as gods. Looking at this strange and disturbing image reminded me of a remark by the exhibition’s curator, Professor Sam Smiles. He’s puzzled by the fact that no artists took part in the earliest flights in balloons. “It is strange, photographers were up there from the start, but I know of no artist who seized those earliest opportunities,” he told The Guardian. I think this points to a surprising truth about art, which is that it sometimes has to avoid experience. You might think that painting, like novel-writing, always requires a diet of new experience. It’s true there have been plenty of artists who hunger for experience, the more extreme the better. Delacroix used to haunt the gallows at Tyburn, anxious for a sight of some juicy corpses. Turner liked to go out in all weathers to view the sea, although the story that he once asked to be lashed to the mast of a schooner in a storm is probably apocryphal.
Typically, it’s a trip abroad that unlocks something in an artist. Think of the legions of artists from cold northern climes who’ve been liberated by a sight of the Roman Campagna. Or the way modernists such as Paul Klee were set off on wholly new paths by an encounter with Africa’s hot colours.