For much of his life, the British art world couldn't decide whether Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a village simpleton or a neo-primitive genius. His paintings looked gawky and eccentric, as if he was pretending to be a folk artist. So far as you could tell from his work, he knew nothing of Matisse, Picasso and the rest of modern art. In fact, he was stylistically his own man -- more so than any other prominent painter in England. He had ideas of his own, too. No one else ever spent so much time trying to prove that Christianity and sex are more or less the same thing.
He was knighted just before he died, but soon pretty much forgotten. Then, around 1980, England rediscovered him with sumptuous exhibitions and books. Now, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto has a rich, fascinating survey of his art, which runs till Dec. 16. It represents him in all his glory and misery.
Spencer's contemporaries recognized his unusual talent during his student days at the Slade School in London. The Bloomsbury set took to him and Roger Fry put him into a 1912 post-impressionist exhibition. Spencer wasn't surprised. Then, as later, his ego was strangely open, almost innocent: He said, "The most interesting thing I ever came across is myself."
As his national reputation grew, his sensibility turned uniquely local. He focused his work on Cookham, the Berkshire village where he grew up. He painted its scruffy backyards, its messy bedrooms, its humble gardens. He developed a way of intensifying the visual power of everyday subjects, as if to say: You might think all this ordinary; I consider it sacred.
One of the startling images in the current show, Swan Upping at Cookham, finished in 1919, looks at first glance like a surrealist dream but turns out to be grounded in fact. At Cookham every year, they gathered and tagged the Thames swans, and Spencer depicted his fellow villagers jerking swans out of the water and bringing them to shore, the people and birds all crowded together on the canvas.
He also made Cookham the setting for Biblical stories. To him, Cookham was "a holy suburb of Heaven." In The Centurion's Servant, he located a story of Jesus healing a sick man in the attic of his family house, with himself as the convalescent. Much of his work was like an elaborate illustration of William Blake's Jerusalem, in which Jesus walks in modern England.
And why not? If Spencer's idol Giotto could transfer New Testament stories to pre-Renaissance Italy, why couldn't Spencer import the Bible to Cookham? So he had Christ Carrying the Cross down Cookham High Street as villagers stared out of the window. He set The Nativity in a Cookham garden, with Jesus lying in a wheelbarrow.
For Spencer, loving God and loving women expressed the same impulse: Sex was a sacrament. "A man raises a woman's dress with the same passionate admiration and love for the woman as the priest raises the host to the altar," he wrote. But this part of Spencer's life went badly. Like D.H. Lawrence, he was a prophet of Eros whose own erotic life was miserable.
He married another painter, Hilda Carline, in 1925, when he was 34, and they had two children. But his eye strayed elsewhere -- in the worst possible direction, toward another Slade-trained painter, Patricia Preece. He became fixated on her, as if she had bewitched him. He bought her expensive jewellery (a rule based on extensive study of artists' biographies: If a male artist gives a woman anything but a painting by himself, he's lost his bearings).
After divorcing Hilda, he married Patricia and signed over his house to her. At that point, he somehow still didn't know she had no sexual interest in him. She declined to consummate their marriage and brought her life-long lesbian lover with her. After getting Stanley's money as well as his house, she threw him out. Now poor and alone, Spencer thought he and Hilda should reunite. Hilda thought not.
That private drama became public theatre in 1996, when Stanley, a pretty good play by Pam Gems, with Antony Sher in the main role, ran successfully in London and New York. At one point, Gems has Stanley trying to explain, in his halting way, how he would like his relations with women to work: "I'd like 20 wives ... I want to be able to go from one house to another ... be made welcome ... you feel more alive ..." He also says that this is what all men want. Only he is honest about it.
In his time of intense agony, around 1936 and 1937, Spencer made what now look like his most powerful paintings, a series of hyper-realist nudes of Patricia. In their merciless power (no sag unnoticed, no blue vein unrecorded), they anticipate by some decades the grotesque nudes that have made Lucian Freud a commanding figure in contemporary art. Half a century ago, Spencer seemed old-fashioned; today, art has caught up with him. It no longer seems outlandish to call him the most important British painter of the last century.
His daughters, Unity and Shirin, now in their seventies, told a journalist a couple of years ago that in retrospect they bear their father no ill will. Unity said: "I suppose I felt that he was honest about what had happened. I felt that he had taken himself to task over it. And that meant a lot to me." One day he said to her: "Oh, if only I hadn't made that mistake! We could have been a happy family."
Hilda's mental health suffered and in the 1940s she spent nine months in a psychiatric hospital, where Stanley often visited her. She died of cancer in 1950. That year he made a painting, Love Letters, perhaps the most touching in the exhibition. It shows the two of them in a huge chair that dwarfs them and makes them look like children; they are reading letters they have written each other. After Hilda's death, Stanley continued to paint her, and in the year of his own death he was still writing letters to her.