Stanley Spencer, English Visionary, CDS Gallery, New York City (1983)



 Englishman Stanley Spencer, whose paintings and drawings are on exhibit at the CDS Gallery, 13 E. 75th through May 28, is perhaps one of the most original artists of the century, if not always the most consistent. Essentially a mystical, religious painter, quirky, eccentric, but undeniably intense and genuine, his work expresses a nearly boundless energy, an extraordinary gift for compositional invention and depth of content, and an absolute sincerity, inevitability of vision and total commitment to art.


 Spencer seems utterly fearless in his openness to life and creative attack upon the canvas, in contradistinction to so many modernists and contemporaries of established reputation who, seemingly terrified by life and living art, appear hemmed in behind barricades of deadly, narrowing theory like so many wagon-trains encircled against imaginary indians.


 Spencer is not a painter easily understood on first viewing. He is a man and artist of many apparent contradictions, at once innocent and worldly, spiritual and sexual, realistic and primitive, hopeful and despondent, eclectic and very, very original.


 Highly trained in drawing at the Slade School in London from 1908-12, later teaching himself painting, Spencer's work falls into two broad categories. In portrait and landscape, a meticulous, nearly febrile realism emphasizes a razor-like contour echoed by English painter Lucian Freud and American Philip Pearlstein (though without the latter's impersonality).


 Secondly, in religious allegory and symbolic social examination, Spencer manifests a directly conceived, nearly tubular approach to the figure whose tradition and influences seem to stretch from the Italian primitives of the 14th Century through Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin in the 19th, to Fernand Leger and Thomas Hart Benton in the 20th. Indeed, Spencer has much in common with Benton in the agitated, exaggeratedly baroque twists of form, which in Spencer's hands, connote mental and emotional anguish, spiritual aspiration and visionary exaltation, linking him very closely in spirit, if not in style, to William Blake, Matthias Grunewald and El Greco.


 The influence of Pre-Raphaelite detail, textural opulence and search for spiritual redress is also decisive, as are the broad, simple forms of the Mexican muralists, the pervasive need for the primitive in our century, and, in Spencer's flattened space, often balloon-like distortions of human form and gestural vehemence. Picasso seems an important subliminal ingredient, as Spencer, too, seeks to stretch the boundaries of matter, to transcend the restrictive conditions of existence and mankind's conventional dullness of perception which fails to see the miraculous in the mundane.


 Raised and educated within the family, away from socializing contact with his peers, Spencer developed an innocence toward life and people that he never quite lost, whatever its subsequent variability (somewhat reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth's life and art).


 Yet, not surprisingly, following his World War I experiences as medical corpsman and infantryman in the British army, Spencer felt that he had lost something of the feeling that no matter how humble or ordinary, all things in life, particularly in his Cookham neighborhood, were embued with spiritual significance and religious intensity.


 "Before the War...," Spencer wrote in 1955, four years prior to his death, "the drawing or painting of the thing was the experience of heaven; it would have been unthinkable that I would or might find snags or hitches.


 "This state of sureness continued to about 1922-23 (31-32 years of age)...So that all the painting I was to do until 1922 was settled in nearly every detail; ten years of solid bliss were ahead of me. But I knew in 1922-23 that I was changing or losing grip or something. I was, I feared, forsaking the vision and I was filled with consternation. All the ability I had was dependent on that vision."


 World War I was a decisive experience which, if not stripping him entirely of his innocence, clearly transformed it. Spencer's vision of life and art subsequently became increasingly a mix of the spiritual and sexual.


 He wrote, "During the war, when I contemplated the horror of my life and the lives of those with me, I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree and form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it. These are the joyful inheritances of mankind."


 Like so many others of "The Lost Generation," the rug of life summarily jerked out from under them by the Great War, sex, as a foundational expression of living, became an antidote to unremitting death, a drugging, ecstatic plunge deep into instinctual, unconscious realms in escape from a shattered world whose riddles no such war-weary minds could resolve. Sex was the great panacea of the 1920's, the 40's, 60's, 70' it is today. The immense, endless sexual itch, when insatiable, reflecting more than its own intrinsic force, revealing the extent of the spiritual void in modern man which, by its nature, remains unfillable by the flesh.


 Spencer had married Hilda Carline, an artist, in 1925. Despite being in his mid-thirties, it was said to be his first sexual experience. While their marriage was not without differences, it was the sustaining relationship of his life. Even following their divorce in 1937, his disastrous brief second marriage to Patricia Preece the same year, and Hilda's death in 1950, Spencer continued to write long, unmailed letter to Hilda, and paint images of remembered, idealized domesticity, one the moving "Hilda and I at Burghclere," 1955, in the present exhibition, a fine work painted five years after her death.


 Spencer's paintings at CDS, primarily from the 30's and 50's explore not only spirituality, but his attempts to come to terms with sexuality, linking the two in an envisioned harmony of nearly divine ritual by which chaotic, alienated humanity might be made whole again.


 His "Turkish Window," 1934, intends to express the theme of sex breaking down barriers between people and nations. Spencer describes the painting as a scene of "lovemaking, in which can be seen women in black veils and white shroud-like clothes. A youth gazes up to the woman, and other youths make love to women through the bars." The reality of the picture is that the shrouds appear empty, faceless or contain skulls, becoming wraiths of death as much as, or more than, symbols of sensual union transcending separateness.


 Spencer's paintings are not without a sense of hopelessness that his earthly paradise might be attained, that the world may not be redeemable after all, spiritually or otherwise, a thought passing through the minds of most participants in the 20th Century drama and charade.


 Another difficulty with Spencer emerges. As in "The Turkish Window," his verbal explanations of his paintings are often, not always, at variance with the meanings the paintings themselves present. "The Dustman (garbageman) or The Lovers," 1934, one of the major works in the exhibition, is another example.


 The artist's interpretation is one of beatific splendor as garbagemen and laborers are resurrected from death.


 "...The joy of his (the dustman's) bliss is spiritual in his union with his wife who carries him in her arms and experiences the bliss of union with his corduroy trousers...They are gazed at by other reuniting wives of old laborers who are in ecstasy at the contemplation that they are reuniting and are about to enter their homes." The bliss over corduroy seems odd; perhaps the homely item reminds his wife of him.


 The couple is being offered garbage as gifts or an act of homage.


 "What is rubbish to some people is not rubbish to me...these things were bits of the lives of people to whom they belonged and express their characters. Nothing I love is rubbish and so I resurrect the teapot, and the empty jam tin, and the cabbage stalks, and as there is a mystery in the Trinity, so there is in these three and many others of no apparent significance."


 It is not the intention of this essay to dispute Spencer or deny his claim that all things, even garbage, are beautiful and meaningful. Far from it. Such open-minded responsiveness to the world would prove the saving grace of contemporary art which, going in circles, accepts any theory as long as it misses the point of art and life. It is unable to understand that a significant visual and emotional relationship with the realities of the world, both physical and spiritual, would be thoroughly cleansing and redemptive.


 But what Spencer has also created in "The Dustman," apparently unbeknownst to himself, is a contemporary nativity that speaks as ill of the world's reception of the newborn Messiah in 1934 as 2000 years ago. Spencer's dustman is the "Christ child" carried in "Mary's" arms, expressing the artist's own desire to be mothered and part of a loving environment (his marriage is failing, resulting in a period of isolation and disillusionment). But the new Christ child, apt product and symbol of the 20th Century, has been born dwarfish and distorted, a Dostoevskian "idiot" with terribly touching, swollen face, eyes that cannot see raised to a heaven that cannot be attained.


 No longer God-like or God-linked, but physically and spiritually lame like those to whom he came to minister, he, too, is deformed and ill in a similarly mutant world and time...the "Dustman Christ," mouth nearly drooling, garters tight about his knees as if to contain incontinence.


 The trinity of gifts offered him by two foreground "magi" are garbage, junk, debris, and as such, despite Spencer's disavowal, ironic substitutes for gold, frankincense and myrrh, a fitting welcome to the new Christ by a non-believing, materialist age.


 At least two of three other dustmen ("wise-men" or "shepherds"?) behind have genuinely transcendent expressions on their faces, certainly when compared to the three women standing hands on hips, cynically dubious of the resurrected figure (and his motley companions), whether he be a dustman, Christ or Spencer himself. Even if on one level they are the dustmen's wives, as Spencer indicates, there is no joy in Mudville at their husbands' return. The women have been doing quite nicely without them, thank you.


 Aesthetically speaking, "The Dustman" is a very powerful painting (as it is in content), with richly colored, thoroughly developed forms and significant paint surface in contrast to the sometimes drier, thinner works of the 50's.


 "The Dustman" was one of two paintings rejected for exhibition by the Royal Academy in 1935 (three were accepted), causing Spencer to resign in anger.


 In 1936, Spencer wrote about his Burghclere murals depicting the resurrection of World War I soldiers, "I have avoided any too unpleasant scene...because in this scheme, as in all my paintings, I wish to stress my own redemption from all that I have been made to suffer."


Copyright by Don Gray


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