Floating In The Void

Alexander Calder’s mobiles display both a musical stateliness and a satisfying sense of equlibrium    

Michael Prodger

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was the artist who made sculpture move. With the mobiles he started making in 1931, he took a static and solid form and lifted it into the air where it could be animated by gusts of wind or the movement of visitors in a gallery. And in doing so he sloughed off some of sculpture’s traditional earthbound heaviness and gave his work a sense of joyousness and levity. Even his moored pieces, usually made from arcs of steel, curve upwards as if straining to escape their roots. “The first inspiration I ever had was the cosmos, the planetary system,” Calder said, and he stayed true to it — his works float and shift in the void.

Calder was a broad-based artist. As well as his sculptures he was a painter (including designing liveries for BMW and an airliner), and printmaker, and he also spent years, rather like a model railway enthusiast, creating his own miniature circus figures out of wire and cloth so he could put on performances — the hobby grew and grew until the pieces of the Cirque Calder filled seven suitcases. Although both his parents were sculptors, and his grandfather created the statue of William Penn that sits on top of Philadelphia City Hall, Calder initially trained as a mechanical engineer, the legacy of which can be seen in the precision of his lines as well as the motorising of some of his mobiles. Some 100 works, in all his different media, are included in Tate Modern’s new survey of his work (November 11-April 3, 2016). It is the first major retrospective of his work here for 50 years.

The exhibition also offers the chance to see en masse what made Calder a key Modernist — a role that is often overlooked. His credentials, though, are immaculate. In 1926, after spells as a naval mechanic, draughtsman for the Edison Company, and timekeeper in a logging camp, Calder sailed to Paris to become an artist. There he found himself in the heart of Modernism. (He also found, on one of his transatlantic voyages, a wife — Louisa James, grandniece of Henry James and his brother, the philosopher William.) In Paris he became friends with Fernand Léger, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp.

It was Duchamp who christened his kinetic sculptures “mobiles” and Arp who named his stationary works “stabiles”. The mobiles, indeed, are very much like Arp paintings in three-dimensional form. Meanwhile, Calder made bent-wire portraits — a form he likened to drawing in space — of both Léger and Joan Miró. It was a visit to Piet Mondrian’s studio (itself a work of art) in 1930 that convinced Calder of the merits of pure abstraction. The final affirmation of Calder’s immaculate connections was that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the catalogue essay for the 1946 Paris exhibition announcing the mobiles to the wider art world.

“When everything goes right,” said Calder, “a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprise.” It went right quite often, as he drolly acknowledged: “My fan mail is enormous. Everyone is under six.” He wasn’t being fair to himself; the mobiles are more than mere jeux d’esprit. As the individual elements, in softly organic shapes and a restricted palette, rotate they display both a musical stateliness and a hugely satisfying sense of equilibrium — each element in perfect balance. The air around them is as much an artistic material as the wire and steel. “To an engineer, good enough means perfect,” Calder said. “With an artist, there’s no such thing as perfect.” But in eliding engineering and art he got close.

If this seems a purist’s aesthetic Calder was also a man fascinated by popular culture, especially theatre and dance. Among his wire sculptures are witty representations of Josephine Baker and, in The Brass Family (1929), a troupe of acrobats. Some of his mobiles, such as Red Gongs (1950), and Streetcar (1951), have chimes incorporated so that they too have a performative role. In this experimentation Calder was very much part of the avant-garde and for all his sense of fun he had a real seriousness of purpose. Which is why his work appeals to more than just six-year-olds.

Peter Lanyon was another artist whose work looked to the skies. Fifteen of the Cornishman’s paintings on the theme of gliding are on show in a small but choice exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery (until January 17). In 1959, Lanyon, a painter of near-abstract landscapes, watched three gliders sail overhead as he walked the clifftops and resolved to join them. He had served in the RAF during the war and immediately took lessons, quickly learning to fly solo and making innumerable flights until, in 1964, he crashed and later died of his injuries, aged only 46.

While airbound he experienced the altered perspectives of great height and the influence of air and thermals. Back in St Ives — where he had frosty relations with the likes of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth — he committed the sensations of flight to canvas. The gliding pictures in the exhibition are depictions of mood and impressions. There are the varied blues of the sky and sea, the browns and ochres of the land, the greens of fields, and marks imitating flightpaths and thermals. The brushwork, in its rapidity and openness, evokes the rush and swoop of flight and its intensity too.

In these works Lanyon sought to emulate his hero Turner and find a new way to represent the landscape and to transmit in paint something of the physical force of nature. The pictures are both beautiful and affecting — what-might-have-beens by a painter whose art helped to cost him his life. 

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