Magazine article The Spectator

Angels and Dirt

Magazine article The Spectator

Angels and Dirt

Article excerpt


Stanley Spencer

(Tate Britain, till 24 June) 'Stanley Spencer', wrote the late AJ. Ayer in his autobiography, 'remains in my mind as the most self-centred man I ever met. His gnome-like appearance was not unappealing, and I could bear with his minor eccentricities, such as ... his wearing pyjamas as underclothes. It was his conversation that wore me down.'

There, viewed through the hostile eyes of a supremely worldly and rational contemporary, is the standard image of Spencer as an oddity, an eccentric, and, if you are an admirer, a 'visionary'. It is a picture of Spencer that the new exhibition at Tate Britain tries with some success to question and qualify.

It is true that he began, as a young man, very much in the style of Samuel Palmer a century before, by painting the English landscape as seen in a mystic light. While across the Channel, and elsewhere in Britain, cubists, vorticists, futurists and other artistic revolutionaries were at work, Spencer was producing paintings of biblical events taking place in and around his native Thames-side village of Cookham. But even those paintings, `The Nativity' (1912), for example, and the non-biblical `Mending Cowls' (1915), show a peculiar emphasis on not particularly mystical features of Cookham.

These early works have a dewy imaginative quality that could be called visionary. When he came home from school as a boy, he wrote, he entered 'a kind of earthly paradise. Everything seemed fresh and not to belong to the morning.' The man who painted those paintings, however, faced enormous shocks in the following years in the form of Love and War - or, more precisely, service as a stretcher-bearer in the first world war, a disastrous adulterous affair and equally disastrous divorce. He emerged, in the Thirties, a very different artist. What kind of different artist, though, is not easy to say.

The exhibition, and catalogue. are inclined to try to put him in historical context. Comparisons are made between the remarkable nude paintings he made of his second wife, Patricia Preece, and the German artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit - or new objectivity - movement, and between his large-scale mural projects and the works of the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera. Up to a point, that's reasonable enough, but the resemblances are superficial, and don't really get at what is individual and interesting about Spencer.

Personally, I think he was out of step with the art of his time, not because he was provincial and eccentric - though he was those things - but because he was one of those artists who only make sense retrospectively. That is, he had more in common with artists before and after his own time than he did with his contemporaries. He started out a bit like Samuel Palmer, and ended up more like Gilbert & George and Jeff Koons, and admittedly at times also Beryl Cook.

Odd comparisons, you might think, for the cosy Cookhamite (Spencer always put great stress on cosiness). Koons, of course, was married for a time to the Italian porn queen La Cicciolina, and made many works of the two of them engaged in various types of intercourse. G&G have been best known recently for images of themselves naked and surrounded by diverse sorts of bodily emission and fluid. But Spencer, it is clear from this exhibition, produced some very similar work.

Among the most striking items not previously widely seen are a full-scale nude drawing of himself from 1938-39, and a number of smaller drawings of himself and his mistress of the early Forties, Daphne Charlton, in playful amorous scenes, including a couple of them seated on a double privy, possibly of Spencer's own imagining. …

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