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The Meeting of Art and Aviation


From the Wright Flyer to the Airbus A380, significant advancements in aviation align with some of the most important milestones in human history.

When the Wright brothers melded practical and theoretical fields to construct and launch the Wright Flyer in 1903, they established the history of aviation as we know it today. Twelve years later, war-concentrated engineering efforts produced the first all-metal aircraft, the German Junkers J 1 monoplane. From the 1970s, the Boeing 747 defined air travel for decades, offering global transit to the public for a relatively affordable price. Due to be introduced in 2025, the Boeing 777X claims the title of the world’s largest twin-engine passenger jet and high-tech multi-role fighters like the Lockheed F-35 continue to expand the scope of modern military aviation capabilities - as technology evolves, so does aviation. It is inevitable then, that the sublime nature of flight and the vehicles that make flight possible have resulted in the aircraft becoming a key visual manifestation of themes, ideas and observations for many artists over time.

On a December morning in 1903, the Wright Brothers arrived at a site that is now part of the town of Kill Devil Hills, about 6 kilometres south of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Greeted by 43 km/h winds, Orville took up the controls and the Wright Flyer lifted off, darting up and down as it sailed across the sand, landing with a thud 36 meters away from its take-off point. The flight was short but victorious. For 12 whole seconds, a human had been airborne in a controlled, heavier-than-air-machine, a moment that marked the beginning of the pioneering age of aviation.

Present on the day of the Wright Flyer's historic launch, John Thomas Daniels Jr was a member of the U.S. Life-Saving Station in Kill Devil Hills. Daniels was awaiting the spectacle when Orville Wright set up his Gundlach Korona V camera, focused it on an area he thought the Flyer would become airborne, and set Daniels the task of squeezing the air bulb that would trigger the exposure in the event of anything of interesting occurring [1]. Up until that moment, Daniels had never seen a camera and after the historic flight, lost in the excitement of the scene, he couldn't recall if he had made the exposure at all. Fortunately, as it turned out, Daniels completed the task to perfection. Timely, sharp and well-exposed, the photograph of the immeasurably significant moment in history also marked the only shot Daniels ever made.

Just 11 years after the Wright Brother's historic flight and Daniel's historic photograph, aircraft were quickly repurposed for World War I. The first role of the aircraft in the war was reconnaissance - pilots would fly fixed-wing aircraft above the battlefield to identify strategic opportunities and enemy movements. Richard Carline, a British artist of the Royal Flying Corps, sketched and painted layouts and scenes of battlefields as observed from the air. Between 1918 and 1920, Richard and his brother Sydney produced dozens of artworks recording views over the Western Front, the Italian Front and the Middle East. Likely inspired by artworks he had encountered in Paris before the war, Richard Carline often exhibited a Cubist tendency in his adoption of unconventional perspectives, depicting the ground below as flat and abstracted [2].

An Impression of Lens, France, Seen from an Aeroplane- the Anglo-German Front Line, Richard Carline1918 | Baghdad, Richard Carline, 1919
An Impression of Lens, France, Seen from an Aeroplane- the Anglo-German Front Line, Richard Carline1918 | Baghdad, Richard Carline, 1919

The Carline brothers articulated a precarious and subliminal perspective of warfare and early aviation. This perspective was also embraced by Russian Supremacist Kasimir Malevich, who recognised the aerial view facilitated by aircraft as an opportunity for abstraction. The aerial landscape, in his eyes, was a radical example of the 20th century, heralding aviation as the bringer of a new state of consciousness. In a leaflet distributed at an exhibition of his new mode of abstract painting, Malevich wrote:

I transformed myself in the zero of form, I destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things, from the horizon-ring that confines the artist and all forms of nature [3]

But it wasn't all serious. During the war, aviation-inspired artworks ranged from tragic to humorous. Moriz Jung, an Austrian graphic artist, made numerous postcard prints in a series based on the tongue-in-cheek potentialities and shortcomings of the aircraft as a device for satirical mishaps and mischief. Jung died in battle in World War I in the Carpathian mountains in East Gallicia, but his masterful satirical execution meant that these humorous works are still viewed today as both inspired and mirthful as well as visually evocative.

By the 1920s, flight technology was rapidly advancing and record-setting captured headlines around the world. In Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange (1920), Stanton Macdonald-Wright analogized colour and music theory with Cubist influences to create paintings called synchronizes under the heading of the Synchromism movement. The Italian Aeropittura (paintings inspired by flight) arrived in the 1930s, emerging from the Futurist interest in cutting-edge technology. The Futurist derivative was propelled by the rapid evolution of Italian aviation, shifting artistic focus from the automobile to the aeroplane. Exemplified in works by Gerardo Dottori, Tullio Crali and Tato, Aeropittura became a visual vehicle that allowed Futurists to address velocity, war, science, perception and nationalism.

With the arrival of World War II, artists came to at a unique artistic juncture. Over history, the role of the war artist was to depict military achievements or glorified battle scenes. However, artists of WWII began to emphasize the catastrophic nature of war rather than idealized renderings. British war artist Paul Nash's painting Battle of Brittan (1941) for example, represents a scene of dramatic and chaotic aerial combat between British and German fighters above the English channel.

Nash described the Battle of Britain painting as an attempt to "surmise England's great aerial victory over Germany"[4]. The dramatic event is an amalgamation of various victorious dogfights with free-flying British fighters engaging a formation of German aircraft. However, in contrast, Nash also made more than 1000 photographic studies of parked and wrecked aircraft in the breaking yards of World War II, an embodiment of the ruinous cycle of war.

Black and white negative, wrecked aircraft, Cowley Dump, Paul Nash, 1940
Black and White Negative, Wrecked Aircraft, Cowley Dump, Paul Nash, 1940

For many, aviation provided a glimpse into the unfamiliar. During the 1950s and 1960s, many artists incorporated figurative renderings of aviation into art, a signature of modernity, ingenuity and defiance in the face of gravity. Other artists were inspirited by the seamless views afforded by the aeroplane, a possible source of inspiration for artists like Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, whose artistic arenas lack a defined horizon line.

In the 60s, rotorcraft were quickly adopted as emblematic of the Vietnam war, sometimes referred to as the Helicopter War. The Bell UH-1 Iroquois first saw service in combat operations during the war in Vietnam, with around 7,000 helicopters deployed. Enlisted in roles including air assault, cargo transport, aeromedical evacuation, search and rescue, electronic warfare and ground attack, the UH-1 has long been a symbol of US involvement in Vietnam, becoming one of the world's most recognized helicopters.

Members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, 26 August 1967 taken by Mike Coleridge features Australian soldiers waiting to board a landing UH-1 near the village of Phước Hải in South Vietnam. The photograph has become an enduring artistic icon of Australia's role in the Vietnam War and has subsequently been etched on the Vietnam Forces National Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra, Australia.

Members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, 26 August 1967, Mark Coleridge, 1967
Members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, 26 August 1967, Mark Coleridge, 1967

Aviation, in general, evolved to represent a mercurial combination of victory, loss, fear and elation. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, a military-trained pilot, produced an extensive range of aviation-themed works over his career. Perhaps his most familiar work, the onomatopoeic Whaam! (1963) is a diptych depicting a fighter plane having launched a missile into an approaching enemy aircraft that erupts in flames. The primary source for the panel is from a 1962 war comic book by Irv Novick, with Lichtenstein appropriating the frame to challenge the concept of originality as it existed in America. The work is a violent manifestation of war, simultaneously monumentalizing and cartoonizing aerial combat. Measuring 1.7m × 4.0m, Lichtenstein split the composition into two parts, detaching the action of one pilot from the consequential obliteration of another.

Born in Germany, Anselm Kiefer grew up witnessing the results of modern warfare. Constructed from lead, glass, photographic prints and human hair, Berenice (1989) refers to a legend that tells the story of the Princess of Cyrene, whose severed lock of hair ascended into the night sky to form a new constellation, ensuring the safe return of her husband. The dominant aspect of the sculpture represents the wing of an aircraft while the lead tubing resting on the ground denotes the fuselage. Woven with layers of symbolic meaning - World War II is represented by the dark and toxic leaden material, while the human hair is a disturbing reminder of shorn concentration camp prisoners. Though the aircraft has represented the pinnacle of technology, it is often the harbinger of military violence, and Kiefer’s sculpture reflects on where humanity fits in the spectrum.

The marriage of aviation and art has carried well into the contemporary artscape. Fiona Banner is a British artist known for her fascination with aircraft exhibited in film and culture. For the 2010 Duveen commission, Banner placed recently decommissioned fighter planes in the setting of the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain. The afflictive resonances of these machines of war represent a language that marks the gaps between words that fail to convey adequate meaning. Banner herself recalls walks in the Welsh mountains with her father when fighter planes would sear the sky with speed and sound:

It was so exciting, loud and overwhelming; it would literally take our breath away. The sound would arrive from nowhere, all you would see was a shadow and then the plane was gone. At the time harrier jump jets were at the cutting edge of technology but to me they were like dinosaurs, prehistoric, from a time before words [5]

With hundreds of old-fashioned arrows penetrating the aircraft from below, Avion (2012) is part of a suite of projects by duo Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez that focus on the relationship between art and society. Exhibited at the Faena Arts Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2012, the two artists (also known as Los Carpinteros) conceived the piece as a symbol of the clash between history and modernization, antiquated-looking arrows lodged in a contemporary piece of airborne transportation.

When the KINDL Centre for Contemporary Art in Berlin opened its doors in 2014, gallery viewers were greeted with a seemingly precarious site-specific installation titled Kitfox Experimental. Created by the Switzerland-based artist Roman Signer, the installation is made up of a Kitfox Classic IV dangled from the lofty ceiling of the former brewery site. 5.6 meters long with a 9.8-meter wingspan and a weight of 454 kg, the suspended aircraft revolves gradually, coaxed by two powerful wall-mounted fans.

The nose-dive of the Kitfox exists in perpetual slow motion. And while there is a uniquely dark undercurrent alluding to immanent disaster, Kitfox Experimental also grants a rare experiential opportunity to explore the aircraft in intimate detail. Viewed in an enclosed space, separated from airports and airfields, the endearing yellow aircraft with red detailing is a signpost of engineering, history and art - a call to push past complacency.

Chas' Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson's Airplane Parts, About 1,000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian's Beverly Hills Space at MOCA, Nancy Rubins, 2001, Photo by Harold Hollingsworth on Flickr
Chas' Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson's Airplane Parts, About 1,000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian's Beverly Hills Space at MOCA, Nancy Rubins, 2001, Photo by Harold Hollingsworth on Flickr

While some artists aim to preserve or imitate the structure of the aircraft as a whole, others have deliberately disassembled and redistributed aircraft parts to create new artworks. Nancy Rubins dissects familiar aviation materials, transmogrifying them into artworks that transcend the sum of their original assembly. Salvaging commercial and industrial materials since the late 1970s, Rubins melds assemblage and scale to make objects that are both identifiable and foreign. In Chas' Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson's Airplane Parts, About 1,000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian's Beverly Hills Space at MOCA (2021), Rubins instigates the impression of inertia in a silenced body. By reconfiguring grounded aircraft parts, Rubins speaks to the way in which a solid can be manipulated into a seemingly precarious state of lightness through reconstruction and residual association.

Ruben's husband, Chris Burden, also focused on the artistic resonance of aviation - albeit with a markedly more combative approach. Burden's 1973 work 747 involved the artist firing a slew of pistol shots directly at a Boeing 747 jet as it took off from Los Angeles International Airport. The piece had a single witness, photographer Terry McDonnell, who filmed the act. In a subsequent interview, Burden stated that he told FBI investigators that the world cannot be completely systematized, saying:

[the piece] was about the goodness of man — the idea that you can't regulate everybody. At the airport, everybody’s being searched for guns, and here I am on the beach and it looks like I'm plucking planes out of the sky. You can’t regulate the world [6]

Another example of the artistic disassembly of an aircraft is by Jordan Griska. Repurposed in 2011, the 1962 Grumman S2F Tracker was a Cold War era aircraft primarily used to bomb submarines. Griska obtained the decommissioned plane and contorted the metal airframe so that it appears to have impacted the plinth erected in Lenfest Plaza at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Inside the aircraft, the existing sections of the plane are transformed into a working greenhouse, leading to the name of the piece—Grumman Greenhouse. The meeting of a military aircraft with plant growth (viewable through small windows) evokes associations of reclamation and the enduring hope of peace and restoration.

Grumman Greenhouse, Jordan Griska, 2011 - photo by  schizoform on Flickr
Grumman Greenhouse, Jordan Griska, 2011 - photo by schizoform on Flickr



Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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