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John K. Grande

Stanley Spencer: Angels and Dirt
Art Gallery of Ontario, September 14 - December 30, 2001

[ 695 words ]


In this, the first show of Stanley Spencer's art ever held in Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario presents 65 paintings and drawings by this quirky, yet fascinating artist. For a long time considered a regionalist painter in his native England where he lived in Cookham, a small English village in the Thames Valley some 30 miles west of London, Stanley Spencer developed a unique narrative style and, for the way he referenced the Bible, has been compared with William Blake. But Spencer developed his narratives differently, in a highly personal, and often obscure way.

What a complex inner life Spencer expressed through his art! Sometimes the convolutions and symbolic meanings are exhausting. His earliest works such as The Apple Gatherers (1912-13), for their residue of natural style, an echo of Gauguin's work, are more intrinsically joyful than what followed. The landscapes are often straight realistic portrayals, witness to what the eye beholds. We see this straight approach in Cookham (1914) and Cookham from Cookham Dene (1938). A poignant critique of modern morality, Love Among the Nations (1935) is jam packed with peoples of different races in their respective costumes, embracing, enjoying each others bodies. Its ultimate message may be be that conventions of race and age do not matter when it comes to sex. The sketches Patricia with Gramophone (1943-44) Patricia Shopping, (1943-44), and Taking in Washing, Elsie, (1943-44) look less laboured than his religious paintings. The dramatic sketches and paintings of Burners (1940) or Welders (1941) done in the wartime shipyards at Port Glasgow, Scotland have that same energy and documentary veracity as Louis Muhlstock's realist treatments of similar war industry themes in Montreal: man and machine interface. But Spencer loads his paintings, crowds them, as if there were always more to capture. Scrapheap (1944) is one of the most poetic and beautiful. The waste and dirt, Spencer so loved is evidenced in piles of rusted sheet metal, the patterns of empty rivet holes, all set against a brick background. Other paintings like Carrying Mattresses (ca. 1920-21) are amusing, border on pantomime.

The religious themes Spencer addressed in a narrative style fuse the everyday banality of English village life with dramatic Biblical themes. They delight in the mundane, as if Spencer were bringing God back home for tea. A simpler delight can be found in the paintings less laden with overt symbolism, for Spencer loved being literal, bringing Gethsemane back to the village square. The swirl of details - a couch, clothes, couple and wallpaper - in Love Letters (1950), is a sincere evocation of Spencer's love for a woman, and delights in a deco style. His mission, to communicate a religious message through art, literal and laden with the English village life vernacular, can be seen in Christ Carrying the Cross (1920). Here, details of ladders being carried by workmen (or is it disciples?), of a cottage crammed with "angels" leaning out of its windows, seem too naive, even as Spencer sincerely believed in this message. Ditto for The Crucifixion (1921). The landscape and Christ on the Cross seen from a bird's eye view, though modernist, even art deco, looks incongruous, as if God and real life met awkwardly at some crossroad in Stanley Spencer's mind.

Spencer's paintings from the 1930s are haunting and obsessive depictions of his sexual awakening. As evocations of an inner life, they reflect a bizarre obsession and guilt that turns inwards. Toasting (or Sociableness] (1937-38) shows a nude couple cooking a slab of meat in front of a fireplace, while Consciousness (1938) casts its shadow on a gossipy dressed-up couple. As expressions of convoluted relationships with both of his wives, these paintings share something of the macabre with Bosch and the painter Edward Burra. Spencer's penetrating portraits of himself and his wives are painful, poignant, and with a feeling for the spirit within. They conclude with a Self Portrait from 1959, when he was dying from cancer. Amid the angels and the dirt, Stanley Spencer undoubtedly had a vision, however perturbed and at times confused. It was entirely his own and he never wavered from that vision.

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.


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