An Indelible Sense of the Body
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The resurrection of the body was no dry dogma for the remarkable English painter Stanley Spencer. In his greatest work the ground seems always about to break open to disgorge its dead. For him graveyards were seedbeds. But the dead who sprouted there bore no resemblance to ghosts. They arose in all their humdrum and familiar guises, astonished but happy to be home. In his early masterpiece “The Resurrection, Cookham,” painted over the years 1924-27, the resurrected figures in the foreground grip the edges of their mausoleum and peer out like travelers sighting land after a long and bumpy voyage; another stoops amid a brilliant cluster of spring flowers; still others stand in a kind of radiant nudity, as though the earth of the grave had washed and polished their transfigured flesh. In his work the flesh itself, beyond all articles of faith, carries within it the promise of its own immortality.
Cookham-on-Thames is the village some 25 miles west of London where Spencer was born on June 30, 1891. Though he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London for five years and served first as a medical orderly in Macedonia and then as a foot soldier during the World War I – an experience that inspired some of his most moving canvases – Spencer’s visual imagination never left Cookham. Unlike William Blake, to whom he is often compared, Spencer didn’t see angels in trees but in the rough, ungainly bodies of his neighbors. For him the townspeople of Cookham in their gaudy and billowing frocks became seraphim in Sunday clothes.
Critics tend to dwell on the “ordinariness” of Spencer’s vision or to trot out the old cliche about discovering the miraculous in the mundane. There’s something to this, of course. Spencer’s paintings from beginning to end display a fierce affection for the homely. This extends not only to his subjects’ stances and gaits and clothes or to the plainest aspects of a building or a landscape, all of which he conveys with stubborn fidelity, but to their lowliest features; thus, he is a great portrayer of the human foot. In “The Last Supper,” the naked feet of the apostles, grouped around a U-shaped table, poke towards each other in wriggling intensity and dominate the center of the canvas, almost like racing boats drawn up for the Cookham regatta.
But in fact, Spencer’s vision is utterly idiosyncratic. The more you gaze at his paintings, the more you find the very concepts of “ordinary” and “extraordinary” joyfully subverted. Though he peopled his biblical canvases with the faces and the foibles of his neighbors, he didn’t view them as mere husks for some supernatural presence to inhabit. The very heft of their ungainly bodies was itself miraculous and survived not only the tomb but the tawdry outfits they paraded in.
As an eccentric, as well as an artist of genius, Spencer was in a class by himself. Steeped in the Bible, he became almost as evangelical about sex, which he discovered late, as he was about matters of spirit. Certain of his canvases, such as one depicting public free love in heaven, scandalized viewers. Another, the “Double Nude Portrait” of 1937 titled “The Artist and His Second Wife,” better known as the “Leg of Mutton Nude,” still shocks, not solely because of the frank portrayal of nudity, nor even because of the incongruous, and unsettling, inclusion of a raw leg of lamb beside the nudes, but because of the unsparing way Spencer paints human flesh. This portrait gives off a whiff of raw human meat (the mutton looks pretty tame alongside) and it still has the power to jolt.
Spencer has been much written about, but there is only one full biography, Kenneth Pople’s fascinating “Stanley Spencer: A Biography” (HarperCollins, 1991). A more incisive account is Fiona MacCarthy’s “Stanley Spencer: An English Vision” (Yale University Press, 1997). I find Kitty Hauser’s more recent book, “Stanley Spencer,” first published in 2001 by the Tate Gallery (where some of his greatest paintings hang) and now available from Princeton University Press (80 pages, $15.95), to be the best brief introduction; it contains a superb biographical and critical essay together with surprisingly fine reproductions (though, sadly, she couldn’t get permission to include the notorious “Leg of Mutton Nude”).
“The Resurrection, Cookham” made Spencer famous, and shortly after he was commissioned to create a series of paintings for the specially built Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere. These were meant to commemorate the experience of the ordinary foot-soldier in the Great War, and in “The Resurrection of the Soldiers” (1928-29), which occupies the wall behind the altar, Spencer depicts the rearisen young men emerging from the earth through a jumble of stark white military crosses. There is neither triumph nor lament in their gestures; rather, each returns to some daily duty. One, in the lower right foreground, thumbs through a small red book, a Bible, destroyed at his death and now recovered. Like the great philosopher Leibniz, who once wrote in a moment of religious rapture, “nothing is lost with God; all our hairs are numbered, and not a glass of water will be forgotten,” Spencer believed that all things, however slight, would be restored.
Spencer combined this belief, this hope, with an almost mystical exaltation of sex. He was in his 30s when he married Hilda Carline, a gifted painter herself, and “deliberately touched a woman for the first time.” Though the marriage ended in divorce, and Hilda herself later sank into madness, Spencer could not give her up; even after his second marriage, he continued to see Hilda as his wife. For the believer in resurrection, nothing, however damaged, can be forever lost.
Moving as Spencer’s resurrection paintings are, they derive their power from his indelible sense of the body. Like Whitman, he was “hankering, gross, mystical, nude.” His treatment of flesh is eerily tactile; we get goosebumps before these rosy and mottled surfaces with every fold and seam and subcutaneous vein so lovingly and yet so brutally rendered. It is as if he were declaring with each brushstroke that this fleeting and variable stuff of which we’re made, this sad and beautiful matter, were permanent and would survive.