Stanley Spencer’s Paintings Are Going Brown With Age

Like certain wines that do not travel well, there are eccentrics in art who tend to lose something essential to their quality when transported to an alien cultural climate. Their work is so closely tethered to native tradition, not only in content but in the essentials of style, that it may easily be mistaken as “naïve”-which is to say, artless or ingenuous-when seen abroad. What on native ground may be rich in implication and association and echoes of collective experience becomes something else on foreign soil where quite different standards come into play, and the artist’s work is obliged to make its way on the basis of a more universal appeal.

Whether or not the English painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) can be said to survive such a hazardous relocation to the alien climate of Washington, D.C., where his paintings are currently the subject of an exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, is likely to be a matter of some debate, even among people on this side of the Atlantic who have an interest in his work. The very title of the exhibition that has now begun a North American tour at the Hirshhorn- Stanley Spencer: An English Vision -implicitly acknowledges the problem, and this is further underscored in the opening paragraph of Fiona MacCarthy’s interesting text for the catalogue accompanying the show.

“Cookham is a demure brick-built village in the county of Berkshire, 30 miles west of London,” writes Ms. MacCarthy. “It lies along the River Thames and part of its charm is the juxtaposition of water and marshy meadows, the bridge and the boathouses, the church and the churchyard, the reedy river banks, the preponderance of swans. The painter Stanley Spencer was born there on 30 June, 1891 and lived there, with few absences, until his death in 1959. His identification with the village was so total that there was a sense in which Spencer became Cookham, and indeed as a student at the Slade School in London he acquired the nickname ‘Cookham.’ Spencer’s immense sequence of visionary paintings transformed the local scene into the epic with an ambitiousness and weird intensity unparalleled in British 20th-century art.”

Ms. MacCarthy rejects the notion that Spencer was any sort of eccentric because, as she further writes, “There was nothing of the amateur or dilettante in him.” But this, I think, is to misrepresent the kind of eccentric he was in his art , which has nothing to do with being an amateur or a dilettante but has a lot to do with an obsessive rejection of what others consider the norms and conventions of art and life. It won’t do, either, to invoke-as Ms. MacCarthy does-comparisons with Vincent van Gogh and D.H. Lawrence, for such comparisons have the inevitable effect of reminding us that Spencer was not only a smaller and less consequential figure than either van Gogh or Lawrence but a deliberately more provincial one in both his subject matter and his style.

On the question of how well Spencer’s art “travels” some four decades after the artist’s death, Ms. MacCarthy’s essay is not really very helpful, for it makes far too many claims that the exhibition at the Hirshhorn fails to support. These claims are, in other words, subject to the same doubts as the exhibition itself.

It was a very different story when the Royal Academy in London mounted its mammoth Spencer retrospective in 1980. Let me, then, quote something that I wrote about that exhibition at the time. “The [London] papers have been full of it,” I reported, “touting Spencer as a major figure, and the crowds filling the Academy’s capacious galleries display an unmistakable relish for the personal saga so vividly revealed in the 280 paintings and drawings jammed into every available inch of wall space. The appeal of the show seems somehow more folkloric than esthetic-rather as if it offered some last magical access to a world now swiftly receding into the mists of memory and myth-and no doubt because of this appeal, its reception has had some of the characteristics of a national celebration.”

There was never any chance, of course, that such a response could be duplicated in Washington, and not only because the show at the Hirshhorn is less than one-quarter the size of the retrospective at the Royal Academy. Without that appeal to a lost local past and the kind of national nostalgia it generates, Spencer is reduced on this side of the Atlantic to what he mainly was: a latter-day votary of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite painting who, when he departed from the literary conventions of such painting, produced some very striking portraits of himself and the women in his life.

These portraits, particularly the so-called “sex pictures,” are painted in a highly realistic style that differs radically from the awful mannerism of so many of Spencer’s religious “epics” of village life. The “sex pictures” and other nudes were certainly daring for their time and place-England in the 1930’s-and they have the additional virtue of being devoid of that ghastly “brown sauce” light that disfigures so many of Spencer’s village panoramas, paintings that seem permanently tinted with the color of strong English tea. Indoors, with his emotions high and his attention concentrated on the objects of his erotic devotion, Spencer abandoned that “brown sauce” light for a high-intensity illumination that may look merciless to us but was undoubtedly intended by the artist to be an expression of his own deepest passions.

Compared to such paintings, which are virtually the only modern pictures Spencer produced, his landscapes of Cookham and its environs are commonplace. As for the religious pictures, I regret to say that I now find them both comical and somewhat disingenuous, for like so much that is sentimental in Victorian religious art, their (11)real subject matter seems to be erotic rather than spiritual. But it may be, of course, that Spencer’s religious interests no longer “travel” well, either.

At the Hirshhorn Museum the other day, the galleries devoted to the Spencer exhibition were almost empty. The few visitors in attendance seemed to be artists or art students, and it was-inevitably?-to the “sex pictures” that they paid the most attention. There was certainly no sign of a national celebration in evidence, nor could there be. Will the response be different when the current exhibition moves to Mexico City in the spring? It might very well be different in Mexico, where Spencer’s village scenes and religious cartoon extravaganzas may well be taken as some sort of analogue of the Mexican mural tradition. In this country, alas, they tend only to remind us of the hapless W.P.A. murals of the 1930’s.

Stanley Spencer: An English Vision remains on view at the Hirshhorn Museum through Jan. 11, and will then be seen at the Centro Cultural-Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City from Feb. 19 to May 10, and at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco-California Palace of the Legion of Honor from June 8 to Sept. 6.

Stanley Spencer’s Paintings Are Going Brown With Age