London

Stanley Spencer

Barbican Art Gallery

Stanley Spencer first considered the idea of a larger devotional schema within which to organize his individual works at the end of the ’20s. This Church House was to be, as its name suggests, a place for both living and worship, in which the joys of religious belief and of domestic and physical (particularly sexual) experience are celebrated together. The central nave of the Church House was seen as corresponding to Cookham High Street, the main artery through the village where Spencer was brought up, and the memory of which provided him with so much of his imagery. To either side of the nave were to be series of chapels dedicated to Spencer’s two wives, to other loves, and to broader treatments of various religious and secular themes. The scheme, of course, was never realized. But, to mark the centennial of Spencer’s birth, the Barbican has attempted, in its exhibition “The Apotheosis of Love” (the title also refers to Spencer’s large, unfinished painting dedicated to his first wife, titled Apotheosis of Hilda, 1954–), to construct something of the sort. Eschewing the conventions of museum display, the show consists of small groups of related works hung close together in a series of fairly discrete, relatively confined spaces. The end point for Spencer, the moment at which the spiritual and earthly worlds would come together, was the “Last Day.” For him, though, this was not a time of judgment but of reconciliation, a triumph of love in death, over the constrictions placed upon it in life. The awakening and reacquaintance of souls in heaven is seen here specifically in the resurrection scenes done in Port Glasgow on the Clyde during World War II, but the spirit of this vision suffuses the show. Throughout, the observation of domestic scenes projects a search for grace, and the memory of childhood innocence in Cookham provides a convincing model for meditation within the quotidian—the paintings of Christ preaching at Cookham Regatta of the mid ’50s, A Village in Heaven, 1937, Villagers and Saints, 1933, The Baptism, 1952, set in the local swimming pool, and so on. There is, too, Spencer’s personal identification in both the physical struggle for the gratification of desire and the spiritual struggle for the attainment of purity. The astonishing presence of the sequence of nude portraits of his second wife is matched by that of the paintings of Christ in the wilderness, conceived and begun at the beginning of the war, after the failure of that marriage and while Spencer was living alone in London.

Spencer, his works, and the reception they receive constitute something of an object lesson in the English psyche. It is not that his talent goes unrecognized—he is widely acknowledged as of major importance—but rather that for all the power of his works, they are understood as the product of a peculiarly quirky, not to say eccentric, Englishness that requires some kind of apology.

His writings compound the picture of someone in whom awkward touches of disingenuousness in relation to his requirements of others and megalomania with respect to himself, persist. The fierce eloquence of works here, such as The Crucifixion, 1958, born precisely from these weaknesses, puts these qualms in context.

Michael Archer