In the webpage on Travoys, attention is drawn to the startling difference between Stanley’s visionary description of the wounded waiting for treatment and the actuality of the images he portrays. The contrast is equally marked in his comments on other paintings, such as The Lovers in which he visually portrays the women on the left in attitudes critical of what they see while arguing in his written descriptions of them that they are in ’spiritual’ sympathy.
This process of turning the actual into the imagined, of turning reality inside-out, is vital to understanding what Stanley was trying to achieve through his paintings. He was honouring in spirit the 15th and 16th century Renaissance painters he so greatly admired as they translated into contemporary imagery the universality and immortality of humanity as expressed in the Christian belief of their day. Stanley, in his twentieth-century interpretations, made use of similar translation. The imagery he shows in such paintings is seldom there for its own sake and should not be viewed as literal. It is essentially acting as elements in the counterpoint by which the painting is constructed, and it is by means of these counterpoints that Stanley turns his reality - his ‘down-to-earth’ - upside-down so that it reflects the ‘up-in-heaven’ he is striving to convey.
Reversal to Perfection
A striking example, for those interested in Stanley's oeuvre, can be seen in his painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony. In September 1945 his dealer, Dudley Tooth, obtained a commission for him to submit a painting on the topic to be used in the Hollywood film titled The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, which was based on a story by de Maupassant and starred George Sanders and Angela Lansbury. Twelve artists of international repute - Salvador Dali and Max Ernst among them - were invited to compete for the substantial prize. There was however a consolation award of $500 for each loser, and the paintings would be exhibited internationally and then returned to the artists.
St Anthony's temptation and the legends surrounding it took place some seventeen centuries ago when the saint, intent on living as a hermit, retired into the Egyptian desert between the Nile and the Red Sea to occupy a discarded tomb as a cell. Although later followed by acolytes, Anthony was solitary for a period during which he underwent experiences similar to Christ's Forty Days in the Wilderness. The object was self-purification, but at times he experienced phantasms which he interpreted as the Devil's attempts to subvert him. To surrealists like Dali and Ernst, the opportunities for depicting the phantasmagoria were highly inviting. Among them was a beautiful temptress urging the saint to carnal intercourse, the subject Stanley chose for his version.
In Stanley's painting, for which only wartime sailcloth canvas was available (the paint goes putty-like, he complained) the saint, in the lower right corner, lies in his sarcophagus like a Russian doll, portrayed in Stanley's 'tubular' style, in which the texture and pattern of fabric is used to convey roundness and material solidity. Over and about him bend young sexy temptresses, one of whom, in a red bikini and with her long hair dangling over one shoulder, is remarkably evocative of Hilda. They are backed by animals symbolic of mediaeval representations of Paradise - lionesses, snakes, an elephant's trunk - echoing his and Hilda's former interests in Indian erotic sculpture with their strong sexual connotation.
The apparent pictorial interpretation is that the women are trying to seduce the saint. But if we study Stanley's 'visionary' explanations of his imagery, we find that with a genius entirely his own, he has turned the story inside out. His temptresses are all envisaged as Eves, and the event is not occurring in an Egyptian desert, but in a 'visionary' or symbolic Garden of Eden where everything, sex included, is in a state of 'perfection'. Anthony is indeed repelling the women's provocation, but not because he wishes to deny it : on the contrary, he longs to join with them in their 'Garden of Eden'. But they are ethereal beings in their up-in-heaven, whereas he, being 'earthy', has not yet attained the perfection.which will allow him to be with them.
The parallels with the comments in the first two paragraphs above are clear. To Stanley, the visionary represents our search for a state of perfection which we long for and which corresponds to our 'down-to-earth' turned upside down.
Such metaphysical subtlety was no doubt lost on the Hollywood competition judges. Max Ernst won the prize, although Stanley's entry was highly praised. His consolation five hundred dollars (worth twenty times that sum in today's values) were no doubt more than welcome in those postwar years of economic austerity.
Reversal to Redemption
Stanley's 'reversal-concept' had an even more
significant use in his thinking and art. It became the means by which
he took into a state of 'perfection' even those
experiences which had hurt and perturbed him.
Most of us tend to blank out such experiences from our memory.
But not so Stanley : to him they were as eternal as all other of his
memories, and demanded comparable sublimation into his 'up-in-heaven'.
get them there, they had through his art to be successfully
redeemed into happy
experiences, a process operated through his
interpretation of Love.
As example, we can recall how the collapse of Stanley's triangular Hilda-and-Patricia marriage-scheme in the late 1930s had almost the severity of a nervous breakdown for him. He just managed to cling on to his vision by undertaking modest-sized paintings in which he used his 'mirror-image- inside-out-upside-down' technique to achieve sublimation. He grouped the paintings into series based on biblical events with titles such as The Marriage at Cana or The Beatitudes of Love. Later in 1938 he retreated into a St.Anthony Forty Days in the Wilderness of his own - in his case temporary isolation in a rented room at Swiss Cottage in London - and began his Christ in the Wilderness series.
In the series called The Beatitudes of Love, Stanley linked his 'reversal' method to the ideas of Love he had outlined in his contribution to a 1934 compilation of artists' beliefs called Sermons by Artists, published by Golden Cockerel Press. The resulting pictures proved to be one of the most remarkable series he made. Each painting dealt with the relationship between male and female, and illustrated a concept in the relationship through a specific aspect of Love, being titled appropriately - Nearness, Seeing, Desire and so on. To convey the concept, he counterpointed images of men with those of women, and included himself recognisably in some as one of the counterpoint elements. All the pictures are noteworthy for omitting the backgrounds or settings he usually employed, and the effect is as if he were disconnecting the 'memory' part of his memory-feeling (which normally provided the setting of his picture) and subsuming it into the 'feeling' (the 'people') part.
Because Stanley only occasionally commented on the meanings of his visionary pictures (and then mainly in his esoteric language), the Beatitudes can be difficult to appreciate. They are often criticized for the ugliness of their depicted figures. But this apparent drawback becomes understandable when we appreciate that in the Modernist terms in which Stanley worked, an artist feels free to convey the strength of his feeling through the use of distortion. In this way, Stanley's Beatitudes of Love foreshadow the more brutalist images of a Francis Bacon, or the highly interpreted portraits of a Lucien Freud.
Because Stanley seldom explained the sources of his figures, their identity in these particular paintings is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. We are forced to go to his biographical writings to see if we can find a relevant memory-feeling, and happily there exists pictorial evidence for one of the series which clearly demonstrates the functioning of Stanley's reversal process. The picture (below) exemplifies the aspect of the mutuality of love he called Knowing, and shows on the right a small, daft-looking female fondly stretching an elongated arm towards the striped waistcoat of a large moustached man holding a crooked stick.
Among the Great War photographs taken at the Beaufort War Hospital is a light-hearted photo showing Stanley's huge and feared Sergeant-Major Kench in relaxed mood with one of the shorter orderlies. One can only assume that Stanley saw the photo at some stage (there is no record of it in his own albums) and the imagery stuck in that prodigious visual memory of his. The 'wife' in Stanley's picture even wears the same fatigue plimsolls. The waistcoat substitutes visually for the striped flannel shirt which Stanley tells us Kench always wore under his uniform, and which became an analogy for Stanley of his submission to military discipline as embodied by Kench, Stanley seeing himself as one of the stripes which had to be exactly like every other stripe.
It is interesting that in his picture Stanley has reversed the couple left-right, a habit of his when basing his imagery on the actuality of photographs. He is indicating that his painting is an 'up-in-heaven' rendering. He then goes on to link it to a concept of his Love by turning the little orderly into an image of himself. But since Kench must remain masculine as one element in the counterpoint, then in the overall male-female concept of the series, Stanley has to make himself female.
By such means Stanley has redeemed his former
of Kench into a happy memory-feeling
in his new thought-world. The rigid swagger
stick so phallically emblematic of Kench's power in his 'parade-dress'
has been reduced in Stanley's new order to a bent staff.
Stanley's days at the Beaufort were a time in which he suffered his first major 'disturber of the peace'. Now, twenty years later, he can look back and find metaphysical - universal - meaning in the experience through his ability to transfigure it into his 'up-in-heaven'. Such, surely, is the meaning - the 'message' - of this painting. It stands as one example typifying the totality of Stanley's approach to visionary art.