Friday, February 21, 2014

Fiona MacCarthy's "Stanley Spencer: An English Vision": Book Review

Having admired Fiona MacCarthy's biographies of bold English artists Eric Gill and William Morris, I anticipated that this shorter overview from a 1997 exhibition of 64 works might reveal insights on a third artist who challenged convention. Fiona McCarthy in sixty pages takes advantage of the larger format to offer an overview which rejects the soft-focus approach even as it accepts that his rounded figures and walled-in "childhood containments" express well Spencer's favorite adjective: "cosy."

As a counterpoint, early on she asserts: "Stanley Spencer looked like a village eccentric. He was not one. There was nothing of the amateur or dilettante in him. His spiritual and personal struggles were in some sense as painful as Van Gogh's." (5) Tough-minded and not as sentimental as may be surmised, Spencer wrote of inflicting "spiritual rape" on everything he strove as an artist to absorb, and that estimation fits him well. "The most impressive of his paintings have the innate gravity that comes from deeply absorbed experience."

She focuses on his earlier career, and the English vision for her appears to be grounded, after his return to Cookham after the Great War and his marriage unravelled, in a plunge from youthful wonder into mature willfulness. McCarthy labels rightly the predicament which found him playing off the resentment Hilda and the calculation of Patricia "alternating tragedy and farce." (42) Out of it, by the early 1930s, his energies seemed to have been warped. Cookham represented to him less the utopia of his late-Victorian formation and more a melange of an existentialist self-affirmation and a pantheistic blood-lust. "Spencer's creative urges seem to feed on emotional and sexual agitation."

MacCarthy, therefore, delves into this period to explore the candor he evoked in his nudes of Patricia, anticipating in their unrelenting exposure of the sagging and dimpled flesh the eye of Lucien Freud. She documents his time "out in the wilderness" after estrangement from Patricia follows a failed reconciliation with the increasingly despondent Hilda. Presaging as well the tragic figures of Francis Bacon, the paintings of Christ in his own wilderness doubt play off their creator's own 1939 solitude.

Of his later career, MacCarthy judges a drop-off in results, whether the Port Glasgow shipbuilding murals which constituted his contribution to the WWII effort (and she notes how he was one of the very few who painted in both wars on behalf of the Crown in an official capacity), or his portraits and landscapes which by the 1950s constituted much of his way to make a living while he contemplated the "Church House, his temple of eroticism" to all the women he had loved.

About the woman who enticed him the most, in her absence more than her presence, in the long run perhaps, MacCarthy calls it "obsessive. Perhaps it was the only means that Spencer had of recognising their tragic incompatability and his own considerable cruelty to Hilda, recycling her so wonderfully in his mind." (57) He could not stop writing to her from beyond her grave, nor could he end the return he made to her embrace in his sketches and drawings for the ambitious chapel of love.

The 64 reproductions feature as captions some passages gleaned from the three million words of his notes and letters at the Tate Gallery Archive. While the editorial constraints may have compressed MacCarthy's insights into a shorter narrative than ideal (it ends suddenly and parts of his life are not expanded), it provides a thoughtful, brief balance to Duncan Robinson's one-volume large-format introduction, Kitty Hauser's monograph, and a transition to Keith Bell's hefty catalogue of Spencer's oeuvre. (All have been also reviewed by me as has this on Amazon US 12-21-13.)

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