The term 'modernism' is usually applied to the widespread change in European art, literature, music, architecture, and in scientific, religious and social thought which climaxed over the close of the nineteenth century and the opening of the twentieth - the period during which the young Stanley's ideas were crystallising. Because it was a movement rather than a specific event and carries somewhat different connotations in the various arts, it is more readily understood as a concept than perceptible as an entity.

The history of pictorial art is essentially the pageant of those artists who operated within the traditions of the culture they inherited but yet reached out to express some universal ideal they found from it. The term 'heroic' can be applied to their art.
Their discoveries were in turn modified by their successors to express their own pilgrimage towards an ultimate, and so art developed step by step with human consciousness. Changes in a given culture were often so slow that the resulting differences in the forms of its art were barely discernible to contemporaries. But in retrospect the seeds of new tendencies can be detected as they gradually grew into movements.

Historically, the early art of tribal cultures was essentially instinctive and expressed in patterned symbolism, mostly neurologically-stimulated. As these cultures unified into structured civilisations their art was often recruited to glorify the externals of their respective cultures, 'iconic' where it was a simulacrum of the contemporary system (think, for example, of the stereotyped forms of Pharaonic Egyptian art), but at times also 'heroic' where the artist reached for the sublime or the universal.

During this stage the art of both Europe and the East maintained common roots.
In broad terms, perspective and figuration was employed to draw the viewer into the pictorial space occupied by the mosaic, fresco or painting. It was used in this way in European art until proselytising Christianity in the fourteeenth century began to favour narrative visual styles in order to more forcefully convey its moral precepts. As a means to this end, the use of perspective was emphasised, with the effect that a spectator now expected to find himself positioned outside the picture space, as though looking through a window, or at an image projected some distance away on a screen.

This system, styled essentially in naturalistic ('lifelike') presentation, prevailed until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the freer thinking of the European Enlightenment arrived to challenge it. Secular ideas of the potency of Man and of Nature began to confront Christian formality. The motivation, the search for the ultimate, was still heroic in the minds of great thinkers and artists, but their methods now leaned towards the internal (the subjective) rather than the external (the objective.) To achieve their aims, their artists found it necessary to revert to the ancient methods of  'drawing the viewer into the picture', ignoring where necessary naturalistic presentation. Inevitably the accepted unities split. The dogmatic began to be expressed in the investigative and the former legendary in new forms of individualism.
 
In England, artists like Turner and Blake embraced these new forms, as did poets like Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth. But although their works are venerated today, their impact was largely ineffective in a pragmatic Victorian culture in which the doctrinaire continued to prevail. Even the devotion to Nature of Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelites was too aesthetic to sway robust Victorian sentiment. On the Continent, a similar situation prevailed, and not until innovating French artists headed by the likes of CÚzanne, Manet and Pisarro broke with existing forms of pictorial realism in the celebrated Paris Salon des RefusÚs exhibition of 1863 did Europe at last sat up and take notice. Even then, Victorian opinion in Britain continued to dominate art for years, at least in public minds : the French Impressionism of the later nineteenth century caused barely a stir here, except in the expectations of cosmopolitan artists like Whistler or Sickert - and they were not English by birth. Even major British art schools prevaricated, despite the excitements of their young students. Not until advocates like Roger Fry and Clive Bell drove the message home by setting up in London the so-called Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910-12 did the change here start to take hold and 'modernism' arrive in art.

If there is one single characteristic by which we can capture this concept we call modernism - and it has spawned, of course, manifold trends or visual dialects - it is that the artist delved into his own feelings, experiences and memories in his search for the means to convey the ultimate he saw, and often cheerfully did so without questioning whether this entailed upsetting and even rejecting traditional aspects of the art he had inherited. To achieve his ends, he had to discard prevailing ways of expression and invent new forms. Viewers not only needed time to come to terms with these new forms, but also had to find ways to relate
the artist's experiences embedded in them to their own experience.

Stanley Spencer found himself at the apex of the change in this country. He was partly a product of the conventional Victorian ethos based on the effects of new industrial wealth, scientific erosion of religious belief and idealism for social and aesthetic betterment. But inevitably he found himself confronted with the new modernist challenges. Forced to decide which sides to take,
part of him still stuck to the verities of the religious unities he had inherited, whereas his poetic and metaphysical instincts led him strongly towards the new individualism. Typically, he aimed to solve his dilemma by synthesising the conflicting views. His use of them, especially his handling of multiple perspectives in imaginative paintings which places him firmly among the modernists, constitutes the background to many of the arguments proffered in this website. 

It is worth stressing in this connection that a viewer can get by, so to speak, with studying small  reproductions of naturalistic paintings. But such is not the case with modernist multi-perspective paintings like Stanley's. The diminished volumes and flattened detail  inevitable in reproducing reduced copies can fail to evoke their 'drawing-the-viewer-into-the-painting' intention. In their case, only when the actual painting is viewed can a spectator fully enter into the experience it is intended to convey. This is particularly true of Stanley's major paintings.

A comprehensive list of the whereabouts of Stanley's paintings is given in the website run by the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham (http://stanleyspencer.org.uk) under the <Location of Paintings> panel. Before making a visit to a gallery to see a painting it is advisable to check that it is available to view.