Stanley Spencer; Modernist & Realist


Self-portrait, Stanley Spencer, 1914

Self-portrait, Stanley Spencer, 1914

Some Realists make work that reminds me of wonderful and simple sugar candy; a rush of pure visual excitement, easy on the eyes, and nothing complicated. (Yes, I know it isn’t easy or uncomplicated to paint that way; just try to create a delicate and sensual confection like Fairfield Porter’s work!)

Then there are Realists so enigmatic that their work creates all kinds of quandaries which rattle about in my head for a long time. Those are the Realists that I love most.

In the States, I immediately think of the works of Andrew Wyeth or of Raphael Soyer. The former stretches credulity and design into a wonderfully complex matrix. Soyer, seemingly effortlessly, pushes you towards his subjects personal space … involving you, almost uncomfortably in their lives somehow.

In England, I am entranced by the life and art of Stanley Spencer. His work, to my eye at least, stands as a very modern type of realism. Maybe not the rough, even harsh newer realism of Lucien Freud but still modern and engaging. (I haven’t yet read anything to tell me that L. F. was influenced by Spencer, but I suspect that he was.)

Terry's Lane, Cookham circa 1932 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

Terry’s Lane, Cookham, c. 1932

Spencer, as an artist who matured within sight of the first World War nearly a century ago, certainly had access to both the grand traditions of the past and the visual ideas of the new century at his disposal. He continually experimented with elements of both in his art.

We can see in his drawing and painting that he had the training we would associate with that tradition. We also see in his work that he had an eye for composition that was not traditional … he crowded the viewers perception, pushed his subject into our world, dragged us into his equivocally desolate and lush visions.

So to, in his life, he experimented and fumbled … ending up in a bit of a peculiar place when it came to relationships. That may have been why he lived so much of his life in and around the village of Cookham; midway between London and Oxford, a place where he could work out his own direction.

nude-1935

Nude, 1935

In the end his work did not seek refuge in some safe and comfortable romanticism for days gone by. Neither did he unquestioningly embrace and advocate everything that was new. Instead, he engaged in the tumultuous negotiations between past and present, internal and external … that we all carry within us.  You can see current events of his day in his work and timeless subjects. Not the same old take on those subjects … rather he looks upon them with a very personal perspective, and giving them a modern if sometimes quavering and enigmatic voice.

Spencer’s work and his life are not quickly or easily understood. He is not “pure and simple” unless by that you mean he is himself. That is possibly why I keep wanting to look at his work so much. To get a better insight into his work try taking a look at the site below: http://modernbritishartists.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/stanley-spencer-heaven-in-a-hell-of-war/ Rickett's Farm, Cookham Dene 1938 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

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2 Responses to “Stanley Spencer; Modernist & Realist”

  1. trudi Says:

    Hi John, I recently visited the Stanley Spencer gallery in Cookham, near Oxford. It is a treat from start to finish, and very inspiring. I think your word ‘negotiations’ really sums it up. There is a wrangle in the air – you notice it as soon as you step through the door. Worth a visit if you are ever in the UK!

    • johnahancock Says:

      Thanks for the recommendation. I get over every few years. My Mum is from England, London actually. She is getting to old to travel alone so I take her “home” every other year.

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