Stanley Spencer – 50 years on

Stanley Spencer was an artist committed to meaning. His paintings merge the religious with the sexual and the everyday with the divine in bold colours and simplified misshaped human forms.

In this distorted reality, Spencer felt compelled to communicate an intimate narrative through his artwork. To his frustration, most didn’t get it. In 1935 The Royal Academy rejected two of his most celebrated paintings, The Lovers and St Francis and the Birds, an act which led to his resignation. Even Churchill wasn’t enamoured by the 1927 Cookham resurrection in Sandham memorial and caustically remarked ‘if this is the resurrection, let’s be grateful for our present twilight’. Perhaps they didn’t get it because Spencer sought to fuse what most wanted to remain impermeable, or because he refused to idealise people with his paint. At once challenging and defamatory for the critics, his landscapes are populated by abstract people in their natural setting, where sexual liberation is united with religious belief.

The York Art Gallery brings Spencer’s narrative art for the first time to the city. The exhibition displays works that span all facets of his artistic career, from the more renowned rural landscape paintings of Cookham, to his portrayal of sexual desire in nude portraits. ‘Spencer is one of the most respected British artists of our generation,’ says Laura Turner, curator of art at the gallery, ‘his work is immediate – sometimes appealing, sometimes shocking – but often offering those who take a closer look, glimpses of his personal life and beliefs.’

And his personal life and beliefs are intimately linked to the ideas he wanted to express in his more imaginative works. By the time he divorced his first wife, Hilda Carline, he had to support his second wife who led an extravagant lifestyle. He was heavily in debt by his thirties, and the landscape paintings earned him the means to survive. ‘I do my landscapes with a great deal of application and care,’ Spencer wrote, ‘but they are dead, dead.’

For Spencer, the vitality of his works resided in the fusion of religion and normal life. Biblical, pre-Raphaelite narratives, are transported to the fields in Cookham, a place he spent forty-nine of his sixty-eight years. He frames the figures of divinity in a domestic setting and merges the epic biblical narrative with his own personal story of war, lust and obsession. Maybe that’s why St Francis and the Birds received such bad press; it shows a bearded St Francis in a tatty dressing gown, limbs disproportionate, head elongated amongst a herd of miscellaneous birds. He appears like a friendly old man rather than a saint, and some were unsettled by the concept of the divine being humanised.

The exhibition follows the story of Spencer’s inextricable artistic and personal life, and ends on perhaps one of the most revealing of all his paintings: his last self portrait in 1959. Staring out is an old wrinkled man, eyes magnified by his glasses, a depiction remote from his 1914 self-portrait. ‘With the early self portrait he is trying to portray an image of himself, which can be seen by the size.’ Turner explains, ‘He painted it one and a half times life size so he is trying to exaggerate himself and give himself this kind of grandeur. He was actually quite a small man.’ Five foot three apparently. But he had no qualms baring himself to the public. The exhibition shows a more obscure painting rarely exhibited in Spencer’s lifetime, The Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (also known as the Leg of Mutton Nude). Spencer combines sex and flesh in the primitive style of Gauguin, giving an intensely intimate insight into his own sex-life. He could not see why sex had to be so suppressed in religious discourse, and not until Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon do these motifs resurface with such stark potency.

Spencer ultimately attempted to bring religion down from its pedestal and merge it with the natural impulse of sexual desire. The exhibition illustrates the breadth of this markedly modern vision, and as Turner adds ‘it will offer visitors to the gallery an invaluable look at the works of this remarkable artist.’

Stanley Spencer – 50 years on is being exhibited at York Art Gallery from the 24 January-19 April 2009.

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