If Americans know British painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) at all, it's most likely for one of two reasons. The artist--a petulant but extremely talented fellow much admired at home--was the subject of Pam Gems' acclaimed Broadway play "Stanley," nominated for multiple Tony Awards in spring 1997. And, the following fall, it was a Spencer nude that led Sister Wendy, the chatty British art nun, to famous paroxysms of televised reverie over "lovely and fluffy" pubic hair in a series broadcast on PBS.
In Britain, Spencer has long been a cultish local hero. During his lifetime, his lush, densely packed, weirdly animated landscape paintings were so sought after by small provincial museums around the isle that he once refused to allow his London dealer to sell another to any museum that wouldn't also acquire one of his grittier, more frankly bizarre religious paintings.
His impact on other artists is also notable. The dozen or so fleshy nudes he painted, like the one that made Sister Wendy swoon, were a principal inspiration for the entire career of the younger, much more widely known British painter Lucien Freud (b. 1922)--although it's certainly unfair to lay blame on Spencer for what is, to my mind, one of the most grossly overblown reputations in all of postwar painting. One look at Spencer's "Nude (Portrait of Patricia Preece)" (circa 1935) or "Girl Resting" (1936) in the galleries of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor here and any vile remnant of a Freud that may currently be taking up space in your memory banks will be instantly erased.
"Nude" and "Girl Resting" are two among 57 paintings in "Stanley Spencer: An English Vision," a carefully selected, often engrossing introduction for American audiences to the painter's frequently peculiar work, recently opened at the Legion. If, in certain examples, Spencer's art got inflated into something akin to a grandiose version of a cute cover illustration for the New Yorker, the survey is nonetheless an eye-opener. There are individual works of great power and poignancy here, and an overall artistic sensibility worth careful reconsideration.
The retrospective was organized by Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and London's British Council. The earliest work is a religious picture from 1913-14, "Zacharias and Elizabeth," and it's a remarkably complicated though assured composition for a young artist of 22. In it, Spencer begins to meld the observational acuity he loved in Pieter Bruegel with the episodic charm of 15th century Italian Primitives--two sources that shaped much of his approach to painting.
The latest work is a 1959 self-portrait bust, finished three months before his death from cancer. Spencer shows himself as a kind of ageless English schoolboy, his head adorned with a cockeyed halo formed by a picture frame hanging on the polka-dotted wall behind him. The dots give a nicely hallucinatory edge to an otherwise sober account of his physiognomy.
Spencer was a figurative painter in an age of abstract art. However, his lifelong commitment to religious subject matter is probably an even bigger reason for his somewhat limited reputation today.
Like the Early Renaissance and Flemish Baroque painters he loved so much, he would regularly cast exemplars of the ordinary townspeople of Cookham-on-Thames (a village 30 miles west of London where he lived almost all his life) in various biblical roles--the tale of Judas' betrayal of Jesus, the Crucifixion or the Resurrection--and he would set these Christian stories in recognizably local settings. If Bruegel showed the ghastly Massacre of the Innocents underway among the snow-covered thatched roofs of a 16th century Flemish village, then why, reasoned Spencer, couldn't he place the solemn Last Supper inside the brick interior of an old Cookham malt house?
One of the most riveting religious pictures is a smallish square image of Jesus rising from sleep in the morning, part of a planned series of 40 paintings on the theme of "Christ in the Wilderness" that Spencer meant as an homage to the 40 days of Lent. The kneeling figure, shown in profile lifting his hands heavenward, straight overhead, is awakening from the shelter of sleep in a ditch hollowed out of the earth. His white robe fans out around him in ruffles that echo the fluted shape of the grass-ringed ditch, making the figure look strangely like an exquisite, overgrown mushroom.
A picture of Christ arising from a hole in the ground, of course, prefigures the Resurrection. Spencer casts the transfiguring event as a singular vision of sensuous communion with the lowliest bit of nature.
His nudes possess the same kind of weirdly ecstatic sensual intensity. In "Self-Portrait With Patricia Preece" (1936) he shows himself in profile from behind, from the bare shoulders up, exchanging unflinching stares with Patricia (his second wife), who lies horizontally across the canvas on a rumpled bed behind him.
Above her, the wallpaper scattered with tiny white flowers creates a virginal field of springtime posies. The full, pendulous curve of the reclining Patricia's left breast arcs directly into the profile curve of Stanley's nose--his nose!--while the dark hair on the back of his head trails off to merge into the tangled tendrils of her pubic hair (which is not, I don't think, especially fluffy).
How's that for a transfiguring fusion of the erotic and the spiritual? For Spencer, sensual experience changes everything--whether it's a pile of scrap steel whose softly rusted surfaces form a delirious chromatic rainbow, or a trash-strewn rural back alley, where a small flowering shrub has pushed its way up through the cast-off rubble.
One of the great things about Spencer's spiritually infused imagery--whether it's a crucifixion of Christ and the thieves placed on the outskirts of Cookham, or a magical cloud of Queen Anne's lace exploding in the corner of a garden--is that it's a vision of Christianity purged of the concept of sin. These are not paintings claiming knowledge of the will of God, and thus urging obedience to authority. These are paintings about standing in awe of something greater than oneself, yet free from infantile uncertainties.
That's what makes them Modern--as Modern as any abstract pictures in the 20th century that are meant to shake off the authority of traditional forms of artistic representation. Spencer isn't just a caricatured English eccentric. Instead he emerges from this engaging show as an artist of peculiar though very real courage--and one with something important to tell us today.
* California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco, (415) 863-3330, through Sept. 6. Closed Mondays.