Depicting busy, British occasions, shell-shocked soldiers, and sausage-throwing chaos at the butchers, Stanley Spencer is an artist known for blending pockets of memories from The First World War on canvas. This year marks the 125th anniversary of Spencer's birth and The Hepworth Wakefield in West Yorkshire, showcasing a large breadth of his work, has taken the opportunity to not only celebrate the legacy of one of Britain’s greatest painters but also introduce Spencer to a new generation. Many of the works of Stanley Spencer: Of Angels & Dirt are from his private collection, including a sketchbook dating back to 1907 (and making its first appearance in the exhibit), which reveals some of his earliest drawings.
Curator of the exhibition, Eleanor Clayton, spoke to The Creators Project, explaining Spencer's importance as a British artist. She says “Spencer holds a unique space in British Modernism, as an artist who pushed and tested figurative painting—using different styles to portray various subject matters. He reimagined and celebrated ordinary and mundane places and events, which is very inspiring. His paintings also express sometimes contradictory ideas—sex and religion for example—in ways that allow for complicated emotions and the complexity of people.”
Not only does Spencer’s work represent British Modernism, his compositions make visible the common worker’s life. He blends the wearisome with the imaginative. In his teenage sketchbook, the artist comes off as loyal to the English landscape but also knowingly aware of society.
Spencer molds complex themes of sexuality, religion, and moral perspective, exhibiting his outlook on British culture and lifestyle. Remembering Spencer’s famous quote, “I am on the side of angels and dirt” his artistic style showcases his fascination with mankind and the capacity to reach a divine, higher level surpassing mortality. This is done by distorting the characters in his paintings.
“Spencer uses different styles for different subject matter—his portraits and landscapes are forensically detailed and almost hyper-real depictions of the physical world, while his religious paintings tend to have more distortion,” Clapton explains. “This may be due to the dialog between the physical world and the transcendental spiritual world that Spencer tried to express in his compositions."
We get a specific insight into Spencer’s outlook on the war from his paintings, but there is more to the story Clayton explains, “There was a show about Spencer and the war a couple of years ago, but this is not that show. We’re looking really at the breadth of his practice. He worked as an artist for just under 50 years and only a small portion of that output relates directly to the war—although of course you can read his war experiences into lots of his work, he said of his repeated depictions of resurrections for example, ‘I had buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.'"
Stanley Spencer: Of Angels & Dirt runs until October 5th, 2016. To read more about it click here.