Flight is an abstract idea which has attracted people since the beginning of time. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, stories have been told of men who could make flying contraptions, so that man could conquer the skies. Until the early nineteen hundreds, however, practical travel by air was merely a dream. This exhibit compares impressions of flight before the airplane with depictions of flight soon after the airplane first came into being. Containing the imaginings of the ancients and the exuberant optimism of the moderns, the excitement is almost palpable. The mediums are as diverse as the senses stimulated. The experience of flight inhabits all of our senses: visual, auditory, and tactile among others, and a range of these are displayed here.
What is flight, and what does man’s ability to fly mean for his future? In an age where flying in large commercial airlines is the experience of the common man, the sense of novelty is lost. Even the sense of being in the air can be lost in such large vessels, and their efficiency is often taken for granted. What follows is a reminder of what flight is, and the stimulation of the senses by the experience.
Unknown, Relief of Daedalus and Icarus, 1000BC-1AD, Marble, 1972.118.115
This piece shows the creation of the wax wings by Daedalus and his son Icarus. The relief is quite static in nature, and very flat. As the beginning of the exploration of flight, the wings are much like a bird, and there is not much detail. The story itself does not encourage people to try it, instead cautioning them from going beyond their depth. The piece is one of remembrance, not an outline to be followed.
Lewis Hine, Icarus, Empire State Building, 1930, Gelatin silver print, 1987.1100.119
The title is a reference to the Greek tale of Icarus and his father Daedalus who escaped a tower using wings they formed from wax. Icarus’s wings melted after he flew too close to the sun. Like Icarus, the subject is a young man, suspended in the air with little support. The Empire State building, like flight, was a daring project that would bring man higher and higher. There is a sense of the precariousness of his position, but hope that the project will succeed.
Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, 1920, Oil on Canvas, 49.70.52
The cornerstone piece of this exhibit, the piece is one of bright colors. The painting embodies the sound of flight. With concordant chords of color, and an overall bright and cheerful palette, these colors of this Synchromist movement are a symphony of hope and promise. This is the triumph of man over the skies, a world where there is no limit to what man can do. Viewers without synesthesia (in this case hearing color) can still enjoy the beauty of this piece.
Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, 1923, Marble, 1996.403.7ab
While man is not depicted in this piece, it is the essence of the movement of flight. Given the artist’s fascination with the phenomenon of flight, any exhibition of flight would be incomplete without a piece from Brancusi. One of his many pieces with this same aim, the sculpture is not crowded by extraneous parts, lending clarity to the sense of motion. It is aerodynamic, and very smooth, as if in this very instant it is in flight.
Leonardo da Vinci, Flying Machine, c. 1487, ink and paper, Insritut de France
A design for a type of multi-bladed flying apparatus is depicted here. Da Vinci was a dreamer, who designed many contraptions that would not be made real for hundreds of years. Like many others, it embodies the hope that man would be able to fly like birds. Unlike the story of Icarus, there is no sense of foreboding in this piece. It is simply a mechanical design, as if this could be taken off of the page and into the skies. The hubris of man is great, and da Vinci’s is no exception.
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915, Oil on canvas, MoMA 248.1935
This piece is a representation of the essence of an airplane in the physical form. The elements are not exactly symbolic, and the individual elements may not easily be distinguished. The overlapping elements give an overall picture of the essence of what the machine is. Blocks of various colors are rectangles without perfectly straight lines or uniform dimensions, which still give the impression of optimism. While most of the pieces in this exhibition, Flight, discuss the essence of flight in the abstract, this is the abstract of the physical machinery that makes flight possible.