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Terrence Heath

Stanley Spencer at the AGO (2001)

BorderCrossings, vol 20 #4, issue 80, 2001.
[ 1,154 words ]


I wonder what event in God's life causes the Alps?
— Stanley Spencer

The only coherent thing one can say about an exhibition of the works of Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) is: Go and see it. Viewing the drawings and paintings, some fifty-three of the original 110 of the Tate exhibition, plus thirty-five drawings from the AGO drawing collection and private collectors in Toronto, is an extraordinary experience. It is hard to think of any artist like him. Breughel and some early northern Renaissance painters are one obvious source of inspiration. Our usual art historical journey through the schools associated largely with Paris in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries certainly does not prepare us for his work. But then English artists did not on the whole follow the increasing radicalism of continental artists. Spencer stands unique even among his contemporaries, although his profound influence on his British descendants, such as Lucien Freud, and even Francis Bacon, is patent. From the beginning, when he was still a student at the Slade School of Art in London, he seems to have had his own unique vision. In the earliest work, you catch a glimpse of Gauguin or perhaps Puvis de Chavannes, but these appear to be passing references rather than influences.

Spencer was first and foremost a draughtsman and iconographer, not a painter. Although he proclaimed exuberance and joy as the basic driving forces in his life and work, there is none of the quick gestural colour or thick application of paint one might expect. He applies paint sparingly, using it to fill in the outlined images. Once in awhile, as in The Resurrection of the Daughter of Jairus, one can see the grid lines that he used to transfer the drawing to canvas. His work, both in his potboiler landscapes and his symbolic autobiographical canvases, is meticulous. His drawings are done with a hard lead pencil and are almost lacking in shadow and highlights. Dimensions are carefully molded with intricately lined hatchings. He worked with fine sable brushes and there are few if any visible brushstrokes in the paintings. The dominant skill of both his drawings and paintings, however, is composition. His works, even those drawings obviously done quickly at a sitting or on a scrap of paper, are carefully and powerfully arranged in space. Although it could be argued that some of his portraits, in which the top of the head is cut off, are the result of his having set the image too high on the page or canvas, the result works so well that he must have planned it. Much of his work was created to be seen from a distance. He was very interested in settings in which his paintings would work as murals and some, although individual paintings, are or can be part of a series.

Spencer's sobriquet was 'Cookham' — he is a painter of place, of one particular place — the small village a few miles from Maidenhead, about thirty miles west of London. It was there he was born, lived, worked and died. He did leave for short periods of time or lived briefly elsewhere, but Cookham was the centre of his world. It was not just a physical place but also a setting in which Spencer pursued the grand and universal themes of love, God, and sexuality that obsessed him. The betrayal of Christ happens in his back garden; the resurrection around the corner. He includes himself, his friends, his family, wives and lovers in the Biblical crowds. The landscapes he reluctantly painted to pay his ever-increasing debts are those around Cookham. The landscapes of Macedonia — a valley, a hill, a clump of bushes and a road — where he was an orderly in WWI, remind him of those around Cookham. His first marriage, his 'true' marriage he would say, dissolved partly because of his insistence that they live in Cookham even though she felt alien and unhappy there. It was as if the place was a necessary filter for all his experience, thoughts and emotions.

This focus on place as the genesis of inspiration and the setting for all significant events is very familiar to Canadians. Our art has of necessity been dominantly an art of region; it is no accident that a belligerent regionalist such as Greg Curnoe would have been an ardent admirer of Spencer's work. Michael Parke-Taylor, the AGO curator responsible for this exhibition, points out that Spencer's far ranging influence on Canadian artists has never been fully explored. Certainly Curnoe was a fan, espousing the regional as a source of inspiration and significance, and making the occasional bow to Spencer by echoing the latter's checked coats and fascination with pattern. The local settings of Biblical events in the works of William Kurelek suggest that he may have been more influenced by seeing Spencer's work when he was in England than he mentions in his autobiography. Spencer's powerful depictions of religious events set in his own village would have spoken to Kurelek and could be the source for the latter's later biblical themes set in prairie landscapes, although Kurelek's pervading despair contrasts sharply with Spencer's almost riotous exuberance.

A great deal about Spencer's life is revealed in the four self-portraits included in this exhibition. The arrangement of these works seems to be dictated by the fact that each of the faces looks directly out at the viewer. The first self-portrait, consciously academic — a powerful young face at the beginning of his career — is all energy and sensitivity. The second, from 1937, is the harrowed face of the man who has lost the love of his life and has been deceived by his own dalliance with Patricia Preece, the woman who comes close to being his nemesis. The third self-portrait, hung in the midst of his strange late 30s early 40s paintings of interracial intimacy and carefully constructed war memorials, is the face of a confused and saddened man. In this work Spencer moves away from his usual realistic use of colour, adding swathes of green and red to the facial contours. The green gives a sallow cast to the features and the dark red of the cheeks suggests a sort of flushed embarrassment. The fourth self-portrait is also the last painting in the exhibition. It is the face of a man old before his time, older than his sixty-eight years, and in spite of a knighthood and many honours, looking askance and skeptical. Appropriately, Spencer's self-portraits serve as a frame to the exhibition. He was an artist whose every work and thought seems to arise directly out of his life. No theme, no matter how exulted, is foreign to him or Cookham. His last project, to create a 'church of me', sums up better than any epithet the self-centredness and universality of his art.

BorderCrossings, vol 20 #4, issue 80, 2001.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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