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Heaven all around

It is so easy to misjudge an artist's intention, and for me Stanley Spencer has been a case in point. I had never read a study on the English painter, nor had I even taken the time to look closely at his work. The few paintings I had seen I tucked somewhere in the corner of my memory, dismissing them as pictures I considered slightly sinister and twisted in content.

Recently, however, I went to an enormous exhibition devoted entirely to Spencer. And there, among this varied collection, and with the aid of a well written catalogue, I began to reform my opinions.

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Nothing warped or morbid is taking place at all. It would be true to say that he did become rather preoccupied with churchyards and gravestones, and that the dead in his paintings are seen crawling out of graves or sprawling on top of tombs. But these are, in fact, scenes of the resurrection. And what is more interesting is that Spencer portrayed the experience as an awakening of ordinary people, who, on awakening, realize they are alive and joyously resume their everyday activities. The life that they awaken to is a life of happiness, innocence and trust. Peace will last forever and life will consist of an uninterrupted state of loving harmony.

Jubilant as Spencer intended the resurrection to be, there is, however, one red herring in his work which, for me, has hitherto interfered with how I received his vision -- and which only now seems clear when I remind myself of his own elucidation. It is the way he draws his figures. By making them overweighty and expressively distorted, he presents clumsy, strange bodies with broad, flat faces. Intellectually I understand what he was trying to do. His style came straight out of the 1920s and '30s, with that era's praise of the honest workingman, all muscular, sturdy and noble. I also recognize the effectiveness of expressive drawing, which has been used throughout the history of art and specifically just before and during Spencer's own period, as with the German Expressionists and their tormented views.

But Spencer's is a much simpler, sweeter vision. Unlike many humanists, he didn't see the dark, bitter, reproachful side to life. He not only accepted and trusted the whole of life but, in fact, saw a heaven on earth and in places and people he made his own, and in particular, his home village of Cookham on the Thames. His own words express that sweetness: "When I was going about the village as a child, I was aware of a wonderful something which was everywhere to be felt. It was bang all around me. It was heaven as clear as the Cookham day." In most of his paintings, Spencer tried to convey that religious significance -- the holy aspect of the ordinary. But the key to this heaven on earth was love: if love reigned, heaven could be felt in everything.

Take his "St. Francis and the Birds." It's a somewhat strange picture, made so by a peculiar, potato-shaped St. Francis, with thumbs living on the wrong side of the hands. But this endearing, childlike picture produces something undeniably loving. Those trusting geese and ducks, looking eagerly at St. Francis, and those charmingly conceived hens carting their baby chicks on their backs, give the bulbous saint a fatherly grace which, on his own, he would never have had.

According to what Spencer told one of his biographers, Maurice Collis, the image of St. Francis emerged out of his memory of his father in dressing gown going to the larder to get food for the hens and ducks. Spencer recalled that his father's trousers were at one time stolen and so he went about the village of Cookham in his dressing gown. The story, of course, is irrelevant to understanding the painting, but it allows one to know how intimately Spencer connected in his own mind, his experiences with the religious. And because his painting was clearly composed and simply stated, the purity of his idea cannot be missed.

Stanley Spencer was very much an English artist, in that he painted English scenes with an imagination both fervent and individualistic. And, in the usual art-historical fashion, his name has been linked to the English artist and poet William Blake. He is, in fact, a direct heir to Blake's tradition, with his personal sense of the holiness and wholeness of life. It's very said that such a vision as Spencer's can be misread because of a stumbling block called style.

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