Love Affair, with Paint: The Hirshhorn Looks at a Genuine English Eccentric

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The Hirshhorn looks at a genuine English eccentric

IT'S DIFFICULT TO DECIDE WHICH IS more interesting the poignantly absurd personal life of the artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1869) or his quirkily great paintings. The diminutive, sour-faced Spencer was one of those Englishmen for whom sex was a complete mystery and then a cataclysm that seemed like salvation itself. He went totally broke and considerably nuts trying to have relationships with two women-a wife who bore him daughters (Shirin and Unity) and a dilettante lesbian artist who hired him into an unconsummated marriage just to get her hands on his house, money and reputation-by-association. (The saga was turned into Pant Gems's provocative play "Stanley," which enjoyed successful runs in London and New York in 1996.) Spencer also created some of the most oddly bombastic yet subtly beautiful pictures of the 20th century. Sixty-four of them are on view in a show called "Stanley Spencer. An English Vision," at the Hirshhorn Mumm in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 11. (It travels to San Francisco next summer.)

Spencer was born into the family of a church organist in the village of Cockham-onThames, near London. He went to the famous Slade art school and produced a stunning early self-portrait. When World War l broke out, Spencer enlisted in the medical corps but also served in the infantry. In 1919 he met Hilda Carline, who came from a family of artists. She relieved Stanley of his prolonged virginity, and he married her in 1925. Spencer took to going randily around the house seminude and encouraged Hilda to do the same. Aflame with the idea of conjugal bliss as a veritable religion, in the 1930s he tried to create a whole "H Chapel" full of paintings on the joys of married life.

Meanwhile, a wanna-be artist named Patricia Preece moved to Cookham in 1927. …