Monday, February 02, 2009

Stanley Spencer

I went to the Stanley Spencer exhibition in York yesterday. It’s quite a small exhibition, but well worth a trip if you happen to be in the vicinity.

He’s an odd artist. Normally, you can see some sort of progression in terms of technique, theme etc. It’s hard to see anything of that with Spencer, though. For example, there are a few landscapes in the exhibition, and each looks and feels quite different. Some are closely detailed, with intricate brushwork. One is almost impressionistic and, although in oils, has the looseness of a watercolour. Others start to adopt the curiously elongated shapes and forms which do come closest to defining a typical Spencer style.

One intriguing thing about Spencer is the way he sees the religious, and in particular revelation, in the most mundane, everyday things. It leads to very striking conflations of religious symbolism and prosaic scenes.

However, it was two self-portraits that most struck me. One was of the artist aged 23 or 24. This is a lovely image, presenting a man with a questing, hungry sort of demeanour. You can see very strongly a man at the start of his life, and you feel instinctively that this is a man with great ideals and ambitions.

Then there is a further portrait from 1959, a year or so before the artist’s death. He looks peaceful and happy, but there is a slight quizicality about his expression and one wonders whether this is a man who is wholly satisfied with the progress of his life. It is a poignant juxtaposition.

I’ve had John Updike on my mind in the past few days, more so than I would have expected. I think the reason for that is that recently I have been reading a lot of his early work – The Poorhouse Fair, The Centaur, Rabbit, Run and Pigeon Feathers. In my head, I have been thinking of Updike as a young man. I have been with him as he has been forging his ideas and establishing his priorities for life. The image I have, therefore, is akin to that first Spencer portrait, of the young man anticipating, not the old man reflecting. Therefore, it seems like a discord between my perception and the reality, that this was an old man. That makes his death feel out of time.

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