Monday, February 17, 2014

Duncan Robinson's "Stanley Spencer": Book Review

The 1990 printing updates the 1979 version, subtitled "Visions of a Berkshire village"; Duncan Robinson draws upon fellow scholars to offer a valuable introduction in a brisk text to this influential and controversial English painter. Over 100 illustrations provide a look at his work (and sometimes his contemporaries) but some of the monochrome photos are nearly thumbnail. Better are the fifty depictions in color of his neo-Primitive paintings.

Spencer may seem to some one-of-a-kind and to others very much of his early 20c training. Everyone from Giotto to D.H. Lawrence, Burne-Jones to Wyndham Lewis, Gauguin to the Cubists, can be drawn upon for relevant connection, as well as closer contemporaries such as Eric Gill and poets and painters who fought alongside Spencer in the formative experience of the Great War. Robinson notes, however too briefly, Spencer's decision for his art not to emphasize brutality but the redemptive powers of the trenches and hospitals provides a logical extension of his service in the ambulance brigade. His paintings as a form of immersion allow the same odd mixtures of perspective and detail that enliven his village paintings. Both take everyday elements and blend them with the mystical and surreal, creating a dreamlike sensation of the palpable crossing over with the ethereal, obliquely.

The text moves quickly, and the digressions to others in his generation and his predecessors help to place Spencer more in his time than out of it as romantics might have it. The text seems to dip into his life and then draw back from it, but this may be an editorial imposition due to the short length of the text compared to the pictorial content in 128 pages. Robinson's expertise in British art allows him to go back and forth from the contexts intellectually and personally that Spencer navigated in his eccentric life with the greater forces that war and making a living necessitated. While more here on his religious attitude might explain more, the ambiguity of his very distinctive angle on the intersection of local with universal endures.

From his beloved Berkshire village of Cookham, he drew the innovative combination of the everyday faces he knew well in natural and man-made settings. He included his friends, wives, and neighbors into portraits, landscapes, and the religiously bold or even sexually charged imagery. While he had to depict war again, twenty-odd years later, he again chose to use his memorable poses, settings, and elongated or foreshortened figures to commemorate not destruction but energy. You can see in the results here Spencer's love for humanity.

As Robinson reminds us, the pressures of the time made Spencer no less determined to make his individual mark on artistic society. In what he dismissed unjustly as "potboilers" for hire we see him apply no less a fine brush and a careful eye to landscapes and portraits executed, even as he labored on vast canvases full of resurrections and frolic. He gained fame and a knighthood before his death, which barely finds mention herein, which may be somewhat appropriate for a man who tried to bring the joy of salvation down to English earth. (Amazon US 12-11-13 or in Britain, 11-12-13!)

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