Saturday, April 18, 2020

A monstrous feeling of slipping off the world's edge

C.R.W. Nevinson (c1919)
Above Christopher R.W. Nevinson, Banking at Four Thousand Feet, as reproduced in Christian Brinton, War paintings & drawings by British artists, exhibited under the auspices of the Ministry of information, London, 1919.


Eric Adeney, "My First Flight: A Futurist Picture" in To-day magazine (July 1918), pp. 177-182—

I want to paint a Futurist Picture.

A wild whirl of blues and grays and mauve, out of which leap at you something expressive of soaring massive strength and—a focal point for the pale blues. the greys and the mauve—a lighthouse, squat, ridiculous, as seen from above, though at the same time lying full length, on its side, at right angles to the earth, to the horizon that is madly standing on end.

Or, would it be “Vorticist”?

That word sounds the more appropriate.

Certainly, the delicate, detailed, “photographic” method is utterly inadequate. Anyone, granted a certain power over technical details, can paint you a train rushing through a landscape. The effect is cunningly contrived by little dabs of blue smoke and flying dust sweeping backward from the wheels! But, set the painter in an express train, and then let him honestly try to portray the view from the carriage-window. What will he put down in the foreground?

Who does not know the maddening moment when you try to read the name of the station as you are hurled through it. You fix your eyes, hold yourself very tense and steady, secretly a little proud of your unexpected power of self-concentration; and then a smudge, of whitish-green and brown: and you philosophically recover from your intense irritation by saying, “Oh well, try the next station!”

Now, the great majority of us sane everyday creatures have been brought up from infancy to regard this dizzy flight of the foreground as perfectly natural. We never dream of anyone finding any difficulty in accepting this preposterous behavior. I remember a child in the lift of the Hampstead Underground saying in startled awe, “Coo, look, the side’s going down.” An impatient feathered female said, “N-a-o-w, we’re going up, silly. The child’s round eyes showed that he knew it was an incomprehensible lie, to be accepted with a sigh. So, from our youth up, we accept as eminently natural the utter impossibility of whirling trees and posts and railway stations. Yet, were I to draw this Incredible everyday occurrence, everybody would laugh, and say, “Don’t be silly!” Hitherto, I too have laughed: tolerantly, of course, with a sort of benevolent broad-mindedness that loftily allowed that some of your Futurists were honestly trying to convey Something, though, of course, they were quite mad!

And then, one soft mauve afternoon, I was given a flight in an airplane. I expected a new and interesting sensation, but as to the exact nature of the thrill I was to experience I had had no hint. No one seems to have taken note of it, as far as I know. Yet all the thousands of aviators must have experienced it, the chaotic whirl, that happens suddenly. That is one secret of its thrill—the suddenness of it. This is what happened :

My military duties at present make of me one of the guardians of the coast of England; and the path to my patrol leads around a great aerodrome that has settled, with a tremendous air of permanency, on a certain wild and desolate spot, or rather, has sprung up its might like the warriors from the Teeth of the Dragon. One day, a small, very keen-eyed, brisk little man, with the MC ribbon, asked me if I would like a “joy-ride.”

Wonderful creature, Man—“joy-riding” in the clouds!

So we donned. leather coats and romantic-looking fur-lined leather helmets, goggles and gauntlets: and strolled across to a machine. Any old one lying about, apparently! This one had only lately been in; wasn’t allotted to anyone in particular yet. They called It the Camouflage Bus, the body being painted in sprawling browns and grays. I climbed on to .the lower plane, and stepped into a little cubby-hole, with a comfortably enough shaped seat, and a place to put one’s feet in front, amid various weird wires disappearing into the framework. A broad belt tied me in. And so I was—in—irrevocably so.

A mechanic commenced to turn the propeller in front. Behind me I heard the pilot making awesome remarks, such as:

"Oh, the Bowden has gone West." (The Bowden! Bowden-brake? No brake?!)

"The throttle won't work, I see." (?!!)

"She wants oil." (Nobody fetched her any!)

“This stay is broken." (Oh dear !!!!)

Then—“Contact”; and “Contact," replies the mechanic which mystic word seems to signify that “she” is ready to move. The engine purred, roared, screamed: little things looking like spark plugs, sitting on top of the bonnet on either side, just in front of me, quivered and spat blue. Mechanics withdrew the blocks of wood from in front of the wheels.

Then—we were off.

Two or three comfortable bumps on the rubber tires, and then smoothness: and the earth, the grass, the banks, the river, the houses, trees, everything, subsided, and in less time than it takes to write this, I seemed an incredible height up from the ground. I did not have that giddy sensation from which I usually suffer when looking down from high tower or windows. One is sitting on such strong virile solidity—swaying every now and then certainly—that there is a feeling of perfect security; not of being poised on nothing over space, but of sitting firmly on a good strong cloud that won't let one drop. I felt serenely comfortable, like being in the bow of a ship that was magnificently leaping up smooth slopes of invisible waves, without any of the buffeting and shiver-my-timbering that goes on in the sea. It was like an ideal switchback, without the extra little bumps or overhanging rocks in which scenic railways indulge with the intention of being entertaining. Those are the things in switchbacks that make one uncomfortable. A straightforward graceful up-and-down I am sure anybody could enjoy!

Then—we turned a comer, as it were: technically speaking, I believe, we "banked."

I confess at first I shut my eyes; then I kept one-half open; and so had awesome glimpses of the earth and the sea toppling over, standing on end. The horizon was vertical! As we swayed, the earth and sea and sky swooped away; at first, everything rushed upwards, like the Pack of Cards in Alice in Wonderland; and then it all poured madly downwards, like the last wild rush of soap suds when the bath is nearly empty. There was a jagged, glittering splash of sunlight in the mauve afternoon sky that was performing the queerest acrobatic tricks, balancing on its tail one moment, peeping at me from underneath the opposite side the next, and in less than no time careering about like an aurora borealis! I saw the lighthouse, squat and ridiculous, directly beneath me; then, the next second, it lay on its side, and, if we had not righted ourselves in another second it would cheerfully have stood on its head. When we thus keeled over sideways there was a monstrous feeling of slipping off the edge of the world, uncanny and gloriously terrifying.

And in the midst of it all I had a clear, definite knowledge that I could never satisfactorily draw the business in the ordinary "photographic" manner. Post-Impressionism, or Futurism, or Vorticism—or whatever “ism” it may be—is undoubtedly the only way to record this mad behavior of the earth and sea and sky and of this strong beast—bird I should say—though that little word sounds too tiny to apply to this rampant creature. Ever as we soared the wonderful thing on whose back I was riding lifted its great blue nozzle defiantly at space, and I could see it climbing, leaping, bounding, up and up, from one invisible plane to another. Being in the front seat, and so not able to see the pilot at work, I had the feeling that this great winged creature was going wherever it wanted, of its own volition. And I repeat, the only way to set it down as a drawing is by one of these mad-seeming efforts at portraying chaotic and simultaneous movement.

This experience has flung me suddenly into new ideas—new to me, that is.

Certain things stood out vividly, all the time—the great heaving nozzle, swaying and plunging, insistent in its strength and blueness; the yellowish semicircular talc screen just in front of me; the brightness of the ribbed planes; the clean brownness of certain bits of woodwork; and, away below, the lighthouse, squat one moment, sideways the next, a clear-cut feature around which swirled the beach, the dull sea, the dull sky, the excitable slit of sunlight, the merging odd pieces of grass, a river, and certain huts and pathways, a kaleidoscope of dull gray-blueness.

But chiefly I was aware of the nozzle and the lighthouse. Ever since that first flight—I have now had two or three more, and no longer need to shut my eyes, nor even to hold on—I have had this matter buzzing in my mind. On odd bits of paper I have tried to draw it. Of course, I could fairly easily paint a mild photographic little watercolor showing the lighthouse, the fore-shortened perspective cleverly "caught," the aerodrome, and the rest of it, and, artistically placed on the lefthand side, a carefully studied replica of the front of an airplane as seen from the observer's seat, and so on, so that people can say “it is just like it." But, pleasing as such a drawing might be to the eye, it would not begin to express how it really feels to be careering about, sideways, 1000 feet or so up in the air.

But will the “mad" method convey this more surely? My friends will laugh, of course.

They have laughed already at the halting efforts on the odd bits of paper.

Nevertheless I want to paint my Futurist Picture…I cannot help it…