Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Kitty Hauser's "Stanley Spencer": Book Review

While a few titles about this iconoclastic English painter introduce him in a short span, Hauser's book combines a convincing thesis with her combination of well-chosen illustrations and incisive, accessible text in this 2001 monograph. She packs a lot in eighty pages, and she places Stanley Spencer firmly within his Cookham village contexts. Neither romanticizing nor distorting his very rooted quality in his native place, Kitty Hauser strives to connect him to his time, his social connections, and his personal experiences during the first half of the twentieth century, more or less.

Of his penchant for integrating the miraculous and the mundane in Cookham, so that Christ, for instance, might blend in with Spencer's neighbors on the high street, so much one may not be able to distinguish Him from them, Hauser emphasizes how subject and purpose joined in Spencer's work from an early age. Even though he appeared when his contemporaries pioneered modernism, Spencer took its elements to blend oddly or juxtapose dramatically with natural and domestic settings. In this "secret topography of Cookham," where railings reveal and cordon off and where skewed angles and foreshortened perspectives reveal angels and curtains as nearly indistinguishable, concealment nestles alongside revelation. From Spencer's walks, his memories stored up from childhood abundantly fertile images, as he took the scenes around him and the figures he passed to populate his canvases.

Hauser shows how in his early biblical paintings "the sacred is perceived in our very midst, as if we might come across the birth of Christ on a walk in the country, or bump into a character from the Old Testament on our way to the shops; as if miracles go on all the time, unregarded, behind the high walls of gardens." (37) The idyll Spencer enjoyed between his stint at the Slade School ending in 1912 and his war service commencing in 1915 appears to have been his happiest time. All he did was wander the village and paint, living at his family's home with no other responsibilities.

The war, of course, changed him, and he returned to Cookham unsettled. Furthermore, after the age of thirty or so, he finally found intimacy with his first wife, Hilda Carline and then the strange obsession with the woman who became his second wife, Patricia Preece. Hauser documents how the latter woman strove to get out of the diligent artist whatever she could in terms of money or frocks, and the subsequent convolutions (as dramatized by Pam Gems in her 1996 play "Stanley), show another aspect in which the transcendental, through sexual obsession and delight and confusion, rubbed up against the quotidian. As Hauser relates in another tie-in, to Spencer's WWI memorial panels at Sandham depicting not battle or slaughter but petty chores of orderlies and a "painter's trick" by which heaven and earth interpenetrate in the unrecognized, uncelebrated duties that consume so much of our lives, the similar blur of insight glimpsed in sex or contemplation of the body, as Spencer's nudes of Patricia unsparingly display, show Spencer's refusal to separate the fleshy tones of his palette from the spiritual suggestions of his themes, enmeshed in the bible, his household routines and/or his neighborhood observations. For, these often conflated into a single expression.

Therefore, his work, where a saint may pop up on the high street and where a house may harbor an evangelical surprise or a naked shock evades the usual modernist rejection of narrative content for formal values. Hauser places Spencer in his material realm, and she concludes that his paintings "are an attempt to demonstrate the double life of things; in a sense they are lessons in seeing." (75)  But this took its toll. What he viewed around him pleased him far more than his lovers could, and he drew contentment from his beloved Cookham best by revisiting it on his canvasses, in his sketches, and in his compulsive letters to the woman he divorced but could never abandon, Hilda, which continued (up to a hundred pages in one example) after she suffered mental illness and then died.

Taking this into account, seeing the costs of Spencer's talent and the impact it had on those around him, Hauser cautions any who would promote him only as a "visionary prophet of love," (76) for only when situating Spencer in his birthplace (where he spent two-thirds of his life) can we understand "the very material contexts that fed him as an artist, the human muddle of bodged relationships, thwarted desires, egotism and social aspirations as well as marsh-meadow visions, religious feeling and domestic bliss." Taking the sordid with the sacramental, the earthy with the ethereal, as Spencer himself for all his failings and pride strove to do, appears the best answer to how we should approach the man in terms of his abundant and sometimes astonishing artistic legacy. (See also Fiona MacCarthy's book with a similar scope and focus. 12-21-13 to Amazon US)

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