Simanaitis Says

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IT DIDN’T take long for art to discover aviation as a subject. A Wright Flyer had already appeared in Henri Rousseau’s Les Pêcheurs à la ligne avec aeroplane less than five years after the Wrights’ epic 1903 achievement. And, as art evolved from Post-Impressionism to Cubism and beyond, so did its representation of flight. Robert Wohl’s A Passion for Wings gives examples of this, several of which I share here.


A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918, by Robert Wohl, Yale University Press, 1994.

Robert Delaunay and his artist wife Sofia co-founded Orphism, an offshoot of Cubism seeing reality as abstract shapes portrayed in strong colors.


Robert Delaunay, 1885 – 1941, French artist. Self-Portrait, 1909. This and other images from A Passion for Wings.

Delaunay often based his paintings on newspaper photographs, augmenting the images with elements of his own. For example, L’Equipe de Cardiff was inspired by a photo of a rugby match, though it also shows the Eifel Tower, a boxy Voisin biplane and an Astra billboard, Astra being the French manufacturer licensed to produce Wright Flyers.


A newspaper photo inspired L’Equipe de Cardiff, Troisième Répresentation, 1912 – 1913, by Robert Delaunay.

Delaunay got in a giant hissy-fit with Italian artists of the Futurist school: “… these little Italian gentlemen anxious to advertise themselves in the usual Futurist manner,” he called them (Delaunay was tall). Even as his paintings became more abstract, his enthusiasm for technology matched that of the Futurists.


L’Homage à Blériot, 1914, by Robert Delaunay.

Delaunay’s L’Homage à Blériot has vibrant swirls of prop-wash and sun glare, the Blériot XI’s characteristic propeller shape one of its few non-abstract features.

As with many new art genres, some missed the point: Wrote one art critic, “It doesn’t resemble anything by Carrière, nor anything by Courbet, nor anything by Delacroix, it really doesn’t resemble anything at all.” However, it met Delaunay’s goal of capturing the movement, light and space of aviation.


Kasimir Severinovich Malevich, 1878 – 1935, Polish-Russian painter and art theoretician.

Kasimir Malevich’s art moved from Neo-Primitive to Cubist to an abstraction that came to be called Suprematism, abstract art “based on the supremacy of pure artistic feeling.” With regard to technology, he wrote, “… the new life of iron and the machine, the roar of the motorcars, the brilliance of electric lights, the growling of propellers, have awakened the soul….”


Aviator, by Kasimir Malevich, 1914.

Author Wohl writes that, at first glance, Malevich’s Aviator seems to have nothing to do with aviation. But Wohl sees its metallic, one-eye guy in a Cubist setting as “a metaphorical escape from everyday life and an ascension toward a new system of perception.”

Urged Malevich, “I have ripped through the blue lampshade of color. I have come out into the white. Follow me, comrade aviators, sail on into the depths.”

Like Delaunay’s, as Malevich’s works became more abstract, their themes of flight continued. For example, Supremist Composition: Airplane Flying resembles Malevich’s Design for an Airport architectural sketch.


At left, Supremist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915; at right, Design for an Airport architectural sketch, both by Kasimir Malevich.

In 1919, Malevich and two Russian pals, Aleksei Kruchenykh and Mikhail Matyushin, concocted a flight-themed absurdist opera called Victory over the Sun. Amateur singers wearing masks and costumes of cardboard had names like “The Strong man,” “The Coward” and “The Ill-Intentioned One.” The sets were abstract collections of contrasting geometric figures. Author Wohl describes the whole thing as “a Cubist painting coming to life on stage.”


A newspaper photograph of the first performance of Victory over the Sun, St. Petersburg’s Luna Park, 1913.

In the middle of the opera’s sixth and final scene, the roar of a propeller competes with Matyushin’s dissonant score. In its four nights of performance, the audience gave Victory over the Sun the requisite shouts, boos and hisses. High praise indeed. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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