'I rose from the dead last night," wrote the British painter Stanley Spencer to his friend, the artist Gwen Reverat, in June, 1911. "It happened like this. I was walking around in the churchyard when I suddenly flopped down amongst the grave mounds. I wedged myself tightly between these mounds," he continued, "feet to the east, and died. I rose from the dead soon afterwards because of the wet grass."
The young artist set this story in one of his favourite haunts, the Cookham churchyard in his native Berkshire village, and it is quintessential Spencer in a number of ways; it is sincere, incontestably odd, visionary and morbid, but in an English country-garden sort of way. As his many paintings of the Resurrection make clear, life and death were inextricably and erotically entangled in his imagination, the supernatural and the mundane cojoined in an art of "angels and dirt." For Spencer, the gates of perception were left perpetually ajar, open to the most private and sometimes perverse epiphanies in everyday life.
The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which has come to Toronto from Tate Britain, allows the public an opportunity to consider this most intriguing British artist of the 20th century. But if the Resurrection has been a theme of his work, the struggle for resurrection has also been a theme of his posthumous career. His work was the subject of considerable debate during his lifetime, when his antiformalist and narrative tendencies put him at odds with the Cézanne-inspired modernism of Roger Fry. While Spencer had his defenders (he was knighted shortly before his death in 1959), "by the late thirties, he had all but lost his reputation in British art circles," says Timothy Hyman, the British painter and writer who, along with cultural studies professor Patrick Wright, is the co-organizer of this exhibition. "He was tolerated because he was distinctive, but he was not admired. Not ever. Spencer was really unmentionable."
He was unmentionable for his narrative inclinations, unmentionable for his explicitly lower-middle-class imagery, unmentionable for his clammy view of sex, unmentionable for his tweedy Christian fervour, and, lastly, unmentionable for his passionate provincialism. (His elevation of Cookham to a frumpy tea-and-date-bread Jerusalem of the British Isles was enough to make the London cognoscenti sweat with anxiety.) Says Frances Spalding, the British biographer of Virginia Woolf and Duncan Grant and an astute observer of British art, "he was everything we tried desperately not to be."
For decades, Spencer all but disappeared from view, while the British art world defined itself with the chaste abstractions of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson or paddled in the waves of American abstraction. Not until figuration came to the forefront again in the eighties, with a rising interest in the work of Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud (who owes a great debt to Spencer), did his work stir in its burial shrouds and once again came to life. When Tate director Nicholas Serota installed a room full of Spencers in his 1990 rehang of the gallery, it was a moment of reckoning. Up until then, his pictures had been hung in the stairwell, on the way to the toilets.
Throughout the nineties, things have continued to look up. But, Hyman says, notwithstanding this current Tate exhibition, he still awaits the full discovery that is his due. (He laments, for example, that the show will not travel to continental Europe.) Walking through this exhibition, it's hard not to be swept up in Hyman's revivalist mission, for Spencer seems the very epitome of the self-directed visionary; loyal to self, loyal to place, and ultimately ruthless and uningratiating in his revelations of the self. The show is greatly reduced from the London version; a mere 53 to its 115 paintings made it across the pond, although Toronto added 30 new works, mostly drawings. A number of the London show's larger, canonical works, such as The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27), are not present. Still, the exhibition in Toronto offers a balanced view of Spencer and is, happily, most comprehensive in the periods when the artist was at his best.
The earliest works, a few of which were executed while Spencer was still studying at the Slade School in London, are generally thought to be his strongest, and this exhibition includes some sterling examples. Hyman has been at pains to correct the view of Spencer as the village idiot, a primitive oblivious to international trends in art. Indeed, as he points out, this could not have been the case given his circle of artist friends (David Bomberg, Reverat and Paul Nash) and his exposure to exhibitions in London.
Thus while we can clearly see the influence of Italian Renaissance figures such as Giotto and Uccello, we can also sense Paul Gauguin in works such as The Nativity (1912), with its monumental male and female forms, and Swan Upping (1915-19), where the woman carrying a punt mattress looks positively Polynesian. As well, the description of form with flat facets of colour, which one can see in paintings such as Christ Carrying the Cross (1920), calls to mind the French postimpressionism of Maurice Denis. Spencer here transforms a workaday scene of construction workers and villagers in Cookham into Christ's journey to Golgotha, painting the scene in pale, fresco-like colours. A host of angelic townspeople, oddly stylized, lean from their brick, ivy-covered housefronts to watch the procession.
Ultimately, though, it is not Spencer's continuity with continental modernism that makes these early paintings noteworthy, but his utter idiosyncrasy. Zacharias and Elizabeth (1913-14), with its vivid bare trees and frighteningly vital grasses and leaves, is a hallucinatory image of the biblical scene of annunciation, with the angel approaching a rapt Zacharias to deliver the news. (Here, the British romantic painter Samuel Palmer seems closer to Spencer's vision than anyone else.) In childhood, Spencer believed that the Bible stories his father read aloud to the family at night could be glimpsed in Cookham, if only he could get a peek over top of the cottage walls. The little girl with her feverish, ember-red eyes, spying on the holy scene from her hiding place behind the curved white wall, serves as a stand-in for the artist himself.
In 1915, Spencer went to war, first as a medical orderly, then as a soldier in Macedonia. By his own admission, the experience broke him. Undeniably, the paintings made after the war do not show the same sensuous and distinctive way with paint. Yet, in a way that was uniquely his, he exulted in the trivial everyday labours of military life -- making beds, dressing wounds, reading maps -- which he famously consecrated in the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, a commissioned cycle of war paintings that Spencer worked on from 1927 to 1932. (Permanently installed in their architectural setting, these paintings are not on tour with the show.)
It was after the war, however, that Spencer's work took a deeper dive into the bizarre, and Hyman's exhibition aims to draw special attention to the production of the 1930s, in particular the portraits of his two wives, Hilda Carline (a painter from an artistic family who bore him two children) and Patricia Preece, by all accounts a conniving and grasping woman with a thing for the ladies who shattered his first marriage, stripped him of his worldly goods and stood him up at the marital bed.
The marriages yielded very different art. The large nude portrait of Hilda, painted toward the end of the Carline-Spencer marriage, is certainly a tortured work, built up of an extraordinary palette of livid greens and bruised violets and mauves. The look of despair on the sitter's face is profound, but the rich, multihued invocation of her flesh is a painterly miracle and glows with life. Spencer's drawings of Hilda are likewise among some of the most psychologically probing and intimate works in the show.
The paintings of Preece, however, are harrowing images of sexual frustration that are almost physically painful to behold. His Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and His Second Wife (1937), also known as The Leg of Mutton Nude, is a landmark in the history of the genre. Situating himself as a nude voyeur in the work, he portrays Preece splayed out beneath his gaze, her face a hawk-like caricature, her breasts wrinkling and sagging, and her aging flesh falling slackly from the rack of her hip bones. A raw joint of meat lies at her side. It is not pretty to look at -- so much so that Spencer's children have prohibited its reproduction -- but it is one of the dark stars of this show. As a testimonial to the grimmer aspects of human sexual dysfunction, it would be hard to surpass.
It is in paintings such as this that commentators -- Hyman among them -- have located Spencer's affinity with hyperreal German New Realist painting, particularly the work of Christian Schad. (Spencer would have seen these pictures during a 1922 visit to Vienna, Munich and Cologne in the twenties with the Carline family.) But what follows in Spencer's later production is hard to find precedent for. His grotesque Beatitudes, painted after the collapse of his second marriage, portray improbable lovers imagined in the most harrowing physical deformity -- great bloated she-monsters attended by simpering misfits, who often look uncannily like the artist himself. While Spencer defended these literally frightful (and fascinating) pictures as images of humble humanity exalted through love, they seem to simmer with a misanthropy born of profound loneliness and disillusionment.
Most of Spencer's later works about village life disintegrate into burlesque, but some, such as The Dustman (1934), achieve a vivid intensity through his use of colour, rhythmic composition and patterning. A few, such as the final paintings of himself and Hilda together, seem to regain the innocence that marked his earliest works. Love Letters (1950), which Spencer completed just before Hilda's death, shows the artist and Hilda ensconced in a giant armchair, his face buried in her letters as he rapturously inhales their perfume. (The two had become friends again at the end of their lives, and he nursed her in her final illness.) In this painting, one senses the artist setting aside decades of suffering and unrequited longing in a final gesture of devotion.
His wonderful final self-portrait of 1959, the last work in the show and painted after the artist's diagnosis with cancer, seems similarly infused with courage. Here the face we see staring out at us is the face of a man still deeply attached to his beliefs -- battered by experience, but essentially undeterred in his solitary quest to account for the miracle he believed his life to be. Spencer's art of faith is not just a Christian faith. He kept faith in the meaningfulness of the lessons to be learned from life, and he upheld to the end the role of art in bearing witness to that. The Stanley Spencer exhibit runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to Dec. 30. For more information call: 416-979-6656.