Religious Influences on Stanley Spencer’s Art
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Published: Thu, 14 Jun 2018
What influence did religion have on the work of Stanley Spencer and did this contribute the reference as a ‘village innocent’ or avant garde genius?
It is difficult to place Stanley Spencer into any of the ideological or theoretical movements of the period during which he painted his unique and deeply subjective paintings. By challenging the divinity of Christianity, and suggesting that Christianity could be seen and gathered from the everyday, Spencer challenges the hierarchy of the church, and of Christian orthodoxy in a way that was both deeply personal, and looked further toward a universality. However, Spencer’s views on Christianity were eccentric for the time. He believed in the last day as a time of orgiastic joy, and his views stood in sharp contradiction to the more standard and institutionalised views of Christianity being about monogamy and abstinence from sex. Thus, politically and religiously, Spencer stood in direct opposition to the religious views held in some esteem at the time, and this is shown by his explicit drawings that juxtapose sexual and religious imagery. In this sense Spencer was avant-garde, and challenged the assumptions of the establishment in a direct and controversial way. But, also, Spencer was deeply traditional in his views. His paintings draw heavily on classical and Pre-Raphaelite traditions, which could have been seen as the result of his artistic education as a draughtsman and a traditional painter, and the subject matter of his paintings often centre around the world of the village in which he was born and raised – the small home counties village of Cookham. In this essay I will look firstly at how Spencer represents his religion in his paintings, by looking at how Cookham is displayed as a metaphor for all kinds of divine and religious imagery. Secondly, I will look at Spencer’s opinions on sex – and how this made his work controversial and seemingly avant-garde with its jarring connection with Christianity and religion in general. Thirdly, I will discuss Stanley Spencer’s subjectivity – and interrogate whether Spencer’s “outsider” status on his contemporary art world made it possible for Stanley Spencer to fit into any easily defined genre or movement.
Stanley Spencer uses a great deal of biblical imagery in his work, often with references to biblical events such as the resurrection of Christ or the “last day”, seen by Spencer not as a horrific world, but as a world defined and brought together by love and by sexual and orgiastic bliss. What is particularly unusual about Spencer’s paintings is the way in which he juxtaposes the two worlds of the everyday and the religious into a single painting – the everyday world of Cookham, the village in which he was born, becomes rich with divine imagery and miraculous, religious Christian light. It could easily be suggested that Spencer was not anti-Christian, as many of his avant-garde contemporaries such as Matisse and Picasso were, but that he was almost as fervently anti-institutional. In Christ Carrying the Cross (1920), the image of Christ is jarringly juxtaposed with the bland and traditionally ordinary world of Cookham. Also, the appearance of Christ with his cross merely blends in with the actions of other people – there is another man, given equal compositional prominence as Christ, who is carrying two sets of ladders behind Jesus. The mixing together of ordinariness and extraordinariness is further highlighted by the house, where people lean out. The curtains that flap out of the windows give the appearance, but the appearance only, of wings, suggesting that the people in the house are angels. This juxtaposition could be seen as both philosophically radical – Christ is rarely seen in art as an ordinary figure, or one that could be assigned ordinary characteristics – and also, judging from the immediately quaint surroundings of Cookham, as inherently traditional. By using his surroundings of Cookham and by combining grandiose biblical imagery and the everyday, Stanley Spencer manages to be both a painter of the avant-garde tradition, yet also one that is firmly attached to the traditional methods of portraying biblical imagery. Kitty Hauser suggests that: “Spencer has painted the curtains so that they seem like wings, transforming the figures into angels at the moment that Christ walks past. But these figures are not quite angels, any more than the curtains are angels’ wings. Instead, just at this moment, they are both human and divine.” Indeed, it is this mixture between sublime and mundane, between the everyday and the miraculous, that Spencer draws upon heavily in his uniquely personal work. In Spencer’s wartime paintings, the mixture between biblical and everyday are used to similar effect, suggesting to the onlooker that divinity and divine love is everywhere, so long as we have the strength to look for it. In Patient Suffering from Frostbite (1932), a large man is seen nursing a victim of the Great War: “the pails carried by the ward orderly miraculously transform him into a ministering angel, as they take on the appearance of wings.” So, it could easily be read that, according to Spencer, the lessons to be learnt from Christianity are not that of obedience and subservience, but are that heaven is possible in the everyday, that love and God are essential components of the reality in which we all live. In Reveille (1929), mosquito nets erected by the war workers could be easily seen as death-shrouds, angels’ wings or winged insects. Stanley Spencer’s interpretations of the paintings are also important, as his writings offer insight into the deeply subjective and personal layers of meaning which he draws upon in the paintings. He suggests that the characters on the right of Reveille are announcing the Armistice, and that the mosquito nets represent a kind of chrysalis, from which the people will emerge into a world dominated by peace and by love. According to Hauser, Spencer does this in order to “show the interpenetration of heaven and earth, where ordinary objects combine and momentarily take on a numinous appearance, without losing anything of their ordinariness.” Thus, it is this “interpenetration” that, in a sense, makes Spencer extremely hard to define as an artist of that particular period. Although he took on many of the concepts of dominant post-impressionist artists (Gauguin is a stylistic influence, for instance, with his paintings of simple, round figures – and the displacement of biblical themes onto a fairly ordinary world), he also pushed them further. Spencer could also be seen as being akin to Symbolism, by assigning everyday objects a greater meaning, but their actual purpose in the paintings – for instance, the mosquito net is never not a mosquito net in Reveille – can be interpreted as something more divine. Thus, Spencer is both a visionary in the sense that he approached, subjected and challenged the central issues of Christianity, the conflict between human and divine, but he also did so in a way that would challenge the viewer into interpreting the world around him differently. By refusing to place anything with actual divine properties into his work – by simply taking Christ and putting him in the context of an ordinary scene in Cookham; by taking the idiom of realist, war painting and organising it in such a manner that suggests biblical qualities, Spencer is in turn subverting the standard views of dominant ideologies as the avant-garde of the period sought to achieve, but also did so in a way that didn’t threaten compromise his position as a “British”, village painter – or indeed a painter of commercial landscapes that he used to make money from in order to continue painting his more artistically advanced work. In Shipbuilding on the Clyde (1946), Hauser suggests that: “the various labours of welders, burners, riveters and riggers were choreographed by Spencer into a sequence of images in which the mundane tasks of the factory-worker take on an epic, almost religious aspect.” Indeed, the presence of the Inferno certainly can allude to Dante, and the ways in which all workers conjoin in harmony, tugging on a piece of sheet metal, suggests a certain unity in human endeavour that, considering the nature of Spencer’s other work, could also arguably allude to a greater theme of universal love and harmony.
In Spencer’s sexual period, he becomes more akin to the more controversial and challenging aspects of the avant-garde of the time, challenging assumptions about the institutions in which we live, albeit in a slightly less aggressive and extroverted manner than say, the Surrealists or the Futurists. But in his more overtly sexual (and visionary) work, he paints a unique and very idiosyncratic view of Christianity, more akin to the 1960s “sexual revolution” than to the traditional and stuffy world of religion and churches. Spencer failed to see how Christianity and monogamy needed to be intertwined, and believed that sexual ecstacy was a means of achieving heaven on earth. His visions of “the last day” were again juxtaposed onto the quaint and pastoral landscape of Cookham, and the orgiastic rites of the “last day” were catapulted onto the village green in Cookham. In A Village in Heaven (1937), the last day is seen as a time when all sexual and social difference will disappear and all will live under the world of God and of love. Everybody, people of all ages and social status engage in orgiastic bliss. All body types, ages, races, genders are combined. And the fact that it engages with religious themes makes it all the more controversial. Hauser suggests that: “Spencer could not see why orthodox Christianity should be so puritanical about sex. At his most enthusiastic, he saw sex as an essential part of his religious vision.” Indeed, in his personal life, the bigamous relationship he indulged with both Hilda Carline and Patricia Preece got him into serious trouble with the establishment, and eventually forced him to break from the Tate Britain at the time. Sunflower and Dog Worship (1937), plays on the even more controversial themes of bestiality. Dogs lick men and men lick them back, suggesting a bestial play between the two. However, the transcendent quality of love and sex reach their metaphorical apex in Love Among the Nations (1935), as vehement an anti-war statement that has ever been imagined. In this painting, world leaders and people from different cultures and social groups engaged in orgies regardless of social background. Hauser suggests that: “Love Among the Nations (1935) is an extraordinary image in which physical love ‘breaks down the barriers’ between representatives of the nations of the world. Spencer himself is represented in the painting: two nubile half-naked Africans pull on the buttons of his tweed jacket, with amorous intent.” Thus his Christian vision of love transcends racial boundaries, and in turn suggest that he is not so much anti-Christian, but remains anti-institutional, in the sense that it was the structural corruption that caused war among nations, rather than the inherent flaws of humanity itself. This juxtaposes the radical view of his religion, and the uncompromising vision of religion and sex combined in his orgy scenes with his position as quaintly optimistic about human nature and about the nature of love that allows us to see him as an optimistic innocent caught amid religious dogma that dominates the essential message of Christianity – namely that God is everywhere, and for everybody, that heaven on Earth is a possibility, and that this is to be achieved through the expression of love through sex and unrestricted copulation. Of course, this view remains controversial and radical even today, and, arguably this presents a view of Christianity more akin to Paganism than to the practically constructed versions of Christianity practised at the time and since.
Stanley Spencer manages to juxtapose opposing views by presenting a vision that is so eccentric, that it is easy to regard him as an “outsider” in the art world. His vision of sex and religion, as placed in the everyday certainly labels him as an avant garde pioneer in some respects – certainly his views were controversial at the time, especially considering his place as a villager, and the placing of his biblical narratives in the small town of Cookham. His religious views are reconciled to some extent by their idiosyncracies, and their glaring difference from orthodoxy, which may save him from any criticism regarding their political or ideological importance. Indeed, the innate subjectivity of the artists work tends to subvert the original message, as people tend to regard his paintings, and the optimistic light in which they are drawn, as harking back to the Romantic vision of the painter as recorder and of the medium of painting being more important than the actual subject matter. Certainly, religion had an impact on the view that Spencer was a village innocent – his placing of biblical scenes, along with the more conservatively executed landscapes, the “dead” paintings that he did for money, certainly describe the landscape of Cookham in quaint terms, and with an air of realism that other modernist painters tended to ignore. Hauser suggests that: “Cosiness was what modernist painting all too often lacked.” Certainly, Spencer’s work jars with the harsh and abstract world of modernist painters, insofar as he regarded his work as layered with a certain sense of personal meaning. Gormley suggests that: “Spencer’s position is radical. If the modernist trajectory was concerned with the development of perceptual language that, in order to be ‘objective’ and finally sublime, ended up by being anonymous, he stands for the absolute subjectivity of the artist – as a point of view (recorder) and a point of experience.” Indeed, the subjectivity of Spencer allows him to reconcile his role as a quaint village Romantic with the more avant-garde elements of his subject matter. Spencer tended to regard form less as a means for experimentation than most modernist painters tended to. For instance, the play with texture and form as seen in other modernist artists like Picasso have no role in Stanley Spencer’s artwork. In fact, judging from the last unfinished piece that he produced, and the bitpiece, painting-by-numbers style with which his work was being painted, his paintings seem more architectural than singular. His “Church House” project, which was something he was working on as a testament to his life with God, the relationships he’d drawn between sex and religion, certainly provided Spencer with the ideal blueprint with which to direct his work, even if the grandiosity of the architectural vision tended to complicate and stifle his desire to experiment. Also, his need to make money from his landscapes tended to subvert his overall vision, and thus tends to put him more in the category of “low” art, or popular art, as opposed to the high art of modernism, which in turn, problematizes his connection with the avant-garde, and places him more in the tradition of Romantic or quasi-Impressionist painter.
Overall, Stanley Spencer was a religious painter, insofar as his works are littered with references to biblical imagery, and took heavily from the Pre-Raphaelite and the classical modes of religious painters. Of course, this conservatism would definitely place him in the Neo-Classical school – far away from the avant-garde of the time, and, at best, as a competent but essentially uninspired village painter. However, what is original about the paintings of Stanley Spencer was that he provided through his paintings and his writings, an insight into his unique world view, and speculated controversially that religion and orgiastic sexual practices needn’t be kept separate. Both in his actual life and in his paintings, Spencer attempted to demonstrate his vision that monogamy needn’t be synonymous with God, and also that the biblical vision of God and heaven was easily attainable, and available in the everyday world. In his selection of Cookham biblical paintings, Spencer synthesises biblical imagery with everyday imagery, and this desire to perceive the transcendental and the heavenly in the everyday was a subject that he stuck at for his entire artistic career. Hauser suggests that: “Spencer’s early paintings of biblical subjects still have the capacity to startle and enchant, fusing mythical narratives with specific and apparently unremarkable locations. […] This concatenation of biblical and local produces some strange effects.” Indeed it is this mixture, done in a subtle, rather than an ostentatious and baroque fashion, that makes Spencer unique, and it is his blending of normal events with divine events that gives these works their redemptive power. However, Spencer’s opinions on Christianity are fairly unorthodox, if not completely unique, and it is this uniquely religious angle that allows us to entertain certain notions that Spencer was avant-garde, and revolutionary. Certainly, Spencer failed to fit into any other “genre” or category of painter around at the time, and his seclusion as an artist, away from the establishment, certainly allowed him to entertain his highly subjective vision as an artist. Structurally, Spencer’s work remains quite conservative, and his later work especially reflects this conservatism, as he worked exclusively to construct The Church House. His work during the 1950s loses the intensity and the warmth of his previous work, and certainly there was an element whereby Spencer was simply painting by numbers rather than generating pieces based on actual inspiration or the desire to experiment. So, it is definitely the controversial religious content that tends to mark him as an avant-garde pioneer, but it is much. Certainly, to Spencer, Cookham and biblical imagery are interlaced, but it would be difficult to see his controversial religious views being popularly held in the small, conservative home county village where he drew inspiration for his work. Certainly, the village and the divine are intertwined in Spencer’s work, and, arguably the rural quaintness of his “free love” concepts have granted his work a fresh popularity in later years. Although it is easy to see the avant-garde concepts behind his work, it is more difficult to reconcile the effects of religion on the notion that Spencer was a village innocent – certainly, his sexual paintings of village green orgies seem anything but what is traditionally held as “innocent”.
Hauser, K., Stanley Spencer, Tate Publishing, London: 2001
MacCarthy, F., Stanley Spencer: An English Vision, Yale University Press, Washington DC: 1997
Tate Gallery Liverpool, Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, Tate Gallery, Liverpool: 1992
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