A psychological interpretation of Stanley’s personality, although beyond the resources of this website, would make for a fascinating enterprise. The originality of his art was the product of an innate nervous sensitivity far more acute than most of us are blessed with. We have to push ourselves hard to keep pace with it at times. One can see glimpses of an embryonic split-personality in the dichotomy between his down-to-earth and up-in-heaven, plus a hint of autism in his retentive powers of detailed observation, in his caution about embracing new sensation, in his overriding search for the reassurance of his Cookham-feelings and in the eternal attributions he gave his imagery, with perhaps an added touch of the manic-depressive - the 'manic' in his handling of the overload of creative ideas to which he was subject, and the 'depressive' in his dread of the frustration an interruption to them would cause him (one of the stated functions of close friends at times was to keep Stanley on an even keel by offering diversions from the excesses of his enthusiams, a kindness not always welcomed when he was in rampant creative mode.)
too of paradigm and archetype as tools of universal insight suggests
Jungian, in which his interests had been expanded in the 1940s by his Glasgow lover Dr
Murray who had studied psychology with Jung.
Through her influence
Stanley was persuaded in the
offer himself for analysis to
late wife Hilda’s pyschiatrist Dr.Bierer, himself a Jungian war
refugee, who was conducting research into ways
of using art in psychotherapy as one among his
many social projects.
are matters no doubt best left to specialists in their field.
Whatever its psychological
origins, Stanley’s imaginative
art consistently reflected a form of metaphysical thinking
current in his Victorian boyhood and couched in language
used now, but the truths of which are as valid now as they were then.
All art is imitative in its effort to refashion for display the reality the artist perceives, or the amalgam of concepts he decodes from experience. But all great art - visual, musical or literary - is also concerned art. It enshrines the artist's endeavours to justify the stories he tells himself as he stands before the universe, naked and alone. Each work is a chapter in an ongoing comfort-myth he has adopted or concocted. It is a bedtime story invented to deflect the nightmares or to welcome the joys of those approaching hours we call reality. It reverses the world we think we know, turns it upside-down, inside-out and back-to-front to evoke a self-comprehensible even if non-material construct, a process which lay at the heart of Stanley Spencer's art and at which he was highly adept.As an artist, Stanley appeared in the limelight in that early twentieth century changeover period in the history of ideas we usually know as modernism. In art, it became a requirement that it should expand and convey the artist's overall experience, rather than simply image a specific event, emotion or sensation, as prevalent in the essentially narrative art of the nineteenth century. First applied to the freer perspectived but architecturally patterned visual styles adopted in nineteenth-century France by Cézanne and Matisse, the modernist movement aroused contemporary hostility because its more abstract forms startled viewers, and needed to be interpreted in ways with which they had not learned to empathise. Some thirty years were to pass before its impact was felt in Britain and began to challenge the representational art so publicly admired at the period.
Stanley, meeting up after the Great War with the more progessive of his Slade friends, was for a while tempted to test their advocacy of one of modernism's new visual dialects, that of Cubism/Vorticism - and to good effect, as in his The Paralytic of 1920, in which he relocates to Cookham High Street the bedridden biblical villager so determined to see Christ pass that he has himself hoisted on to his roof. But Stanley soon failed to find in the style the universality he sensed. He needed a more fulfilling approach, one which would sublimate his experience (refashion it intuitively from the continuum of his experience to reflect as accurately as he could the patterns of experience he discerned as common to humanity.)
Others at the time
felt the same need. In
for example, a 'stream of consciousness' movement developed, literally
so in the writings of Gertude Stein, but with James
Joyce using the paradigm of the Odyssey for his Ulysses,
Proust reaching into social experience for his A la recherche du
perdu, Ezra Pound into his classical and Chinese
interests for his Cantos,
or T S Eliot for his then-startling The Waste Land and Four
The boundaries we
give them map their form or
properties for us, so that
they become mental patterns or images (shapes
as Stanley called them.) In
sympathy with our fellows we allocate each shape an
identity, give it a
name, a 'dog', say, or a 'cat, even
we are aware
that every dog or cat is individual and different from every other (Stanley used a tree
or a rabbit for
explanation in his
1934 Sermons by Artists published by The Golden Cockerel Press.)
In effect we use the scientific method of dividing the world into recognisable constituent parts and identifying them in their differences. Such compartmentalisation is essentially the method of seeking accuracy which Stanley refers to as the intellectual approach, and to which he was so respectful, both in striving to understand his down-to-earth life and in defining the memorised detail he assembled into his paintings. But to concentrate exclusively on such categorisation, however justified in down-to-earth terms, could, he asserted, divorce its adherents from their true search - the human instinct to associate their individual categorisations into an ultimate totality or unity, in effect a world-frame or life-meaning by which we steer our lives.
In Stanley's view, such a search can be undertaken - if with effort - because our perceptions are not limited to objects. Many percepts, especially those accompanied by strong stimuli, will give us sensations, feelings or emotions which can take us by surprise and occupy our attention to the extent that we feel we must try to make conscious sense of them. They become the material by which we form concepts. Whereas the immediate percept delineates for us what we think of as 'reality', the concept provides us with a less material dimension which we can persuade ourselves is 'truth'. At what point reality becomes 'truth' is the artist's essential preoccupation, and indeed ultimately of us all.
The arbiter of 'truth' is the accuracy with which we map our concepts. Get the boundaries wrong and we get our world wrong.As our stock of entities (our percepts-plus-concepts, our 'shapes') accumulates, it becomes clear that at deeper levels differences can fade and similarities substitute. Cats and dogs, for example, have different categories as animals but share similar characteristics when classified as mammals. DNA reveals that the human existence we once thought unique in fact links us with many less-advanced forms of life. The initial boundaries by which we first delimited our entities have to be expanded and redefined, and these wider boundaries given new categories. Each new entity is revealed as a more meaningful grasp of things or ideas on our part and as a stage in our expanding consciousness. They seem to advance us towards a conviction that we are in the grip of a compulsion which is impelling us towards some dimly-glimped totality. They certainly did so for Stanley, who decided that the most apt incentive for such totality was the concept he knew as God : I keep trying to get with [my notions] to where some all comprehending notion will great-grandpa the lot. These notions seem ....to be parts of one thing. What is the one thing? I concluded that God was the grand-daddy of them all....
In order to retrieve the 'reality' or 'truth' of the original entities we need to discard the irrelevant associations they acquired while in our memory and retain only those which strike us as pertinent. An artist will make his assembly through a process of simplification, modification and, where necessary, distortion. He leans towards the use of inventive imagination rather than reasoned logic.
When the artist feels that his assembly has effected an apt reconstitution, he will be persuaded he has correctly recaptured the essence ('truth') of the original, even though the result, if a painting or sculpture, may not always look very like the initial 'reality'. To manage the process he uses not pure intellect as such but intellect-plus-inventive imagination - 'intuition'. Its operation becomes the use of the 'intuitive' - the instinctive in Stanley's terminology - essential in his view to revealing meaning, and more relevant for him than the purely intellectual when striving for his 'up-in-heaven'.
The procedure forms much of the art we have come to expect of the great names we admire. But in Stanley's case we have to ask ourselves why his intuition does not offer the freely imaginative element used by most artists to recapture their experiences.
The simplest answer is that the exactitude in Stanley's nature, inherited from his master-builder grandfather and his professional-musician father, made him distrust what he saw as the indiscipline of free inventive imagination. Throughout his life he made splendid use of his instinct-to-accuracy in painting his highly-observed landscapes and portraits. But when he wished to reconstitute a memorised scene into visionary imagery, it did little for him, as he found it difficult to prevent himself anchoring its detail in such photographic accuracy that it overrode recourse to imaginative invention.
The resulting pinpoint detail in Stanley's visionary pictures appears initially to lean towards factual representation rather than pictorial inventiveness. But his view was that such accuracy was essential if he were to validly define the settings of a visionary picture. It gave him the parameters against which he could bring his feelings into play to reach vision. It committed him to the principle know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you, as expressed by the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas. If he were to abandon precision of detail in the interests of free invention he might get his premise wrong. His visionary reconstruction would be invalid and he would have wasted his time.
To compose his visionary pictures Stanley's usual procedure was to recreate the imagery he wanted from his memory-feelings. These were remarkably crisp, for had the gift of episodic memory. They were pulled up from his subconscious (and sometimes from his deep unconscious) in the process he called contemplation. The point of the demanding exercise was that the memory-feelings he recalled should have feelings comparable to those he wanted to convey in the new picture (I think therefore I am, said Descartes, to which Rousseau riposted I feel therefore I am.) When a suitable match of feeling occurred, physical detail of the recovered memory-feeling would be converted into the location or setting of the new picture (and thus used in effect as a proxy and not intended as 'real') while the feeling would be imparted by choosing objects or figures apposite to the mood of the memory and metamorphosing them into associative shapes.
The shapes Stanley derived from these feelings were mostly of human figures, because people with whom he associated the required emotions were to him the most apt visual source. His figures usually remained recognisable as the people he had chosen but, as with the detail of his location or setting, they were not intended to represent them in their actuality. They were again proxies, on which he could lean as representative of the emotions he was now expressing and so would need to be modified or even distorted where necessary to that end.Inevitably the result was that Stanley became convinced that the only trustworthy means of expressing such visionary impact lay in recreating highly self-referential imagery, even if at times with a candour that was too easily misinterpreted as a lack of sophistication. The impression of unworldliness sometimes ascribed to Stanley derived from an ongoing curiosity which remained almost childlike in its intensity. In his early days it intrigued - and sometimes amused - many of those who crossed his path.
This evolving life-meaning was the justification of Stanley's art, distinguishing him from his more secular contemporaries. His disciplined search for it was not always appreciated, in spite of his constant efforts to explain. But he was far from being the 'innocent' he was often thought to be, nor was he the impractical dreamer he sometimes seemed - an artist such as he who so resolutely pinned his vision to the reasoned facts of his everyday existence was never in danger of seducing his imagination with the fluff of fantasy. What he saw, he saw straight, even when he turned it inside-out or back-to-front in the interests of art.
The imagination traditionally used by artists is intended to take them - and us - 'beyond' their subject, so that we become aware of a 'universal' element in their work. Viewers are moved by it. But when they first come across one of Stanley's visionary paintings, they tend to exclaim, 'Fascinating, but surely Stanley's expression is grounded in such precise detail that we cannot discern the universality in the painting he claims when so eloquently speaking of it?'
It is a valid question. The answer is that Stanley's 'universal' is in fact in his picture, but in a form initially unfamiliar to most viewers. It lies in the tension, the dialectic, the mirror-reflectivity, the counterpoint, in which he set much of his imagery, at least until the last decade of his life.Counterpoint in Stanley's usage was an extension of the counterbalance of form, colour, tone and so forth which is such a necessary component in all worthwhile visual composition. He adapted the concept from the triptych form of mediaeval altarpieces with which he was so familiar, although its physicality sourced from childhood wonder at finding the layout of his neighbouring semi-detached house to be exactly the same as his own, but the other way round. He saw it as a 'spiritual' device in which the imagery of the two wings 'amalgamated' to honour the central theme, as exemplified initially in a drawing of the neighbours gossipping over the party hedge, and then in a 'visionary' painting as The Neighbours, 1936 (Bridgeman SSG 135078)
This third or master entity constitutes the crux of the counterpoint. It conveys the transcendence the artist wishes to present (is this why da Vinci kept his Mona Lisa with him all his life, or why onlookers have been known to burst suddenly into tears in front of the panels of a Rothko abstract in which the tones or forms resonate for them across the zones - the 'barrier' - dividing them?) In Stanley's usage this third element usually demands empathetic understanding from the viewer, and its purpose as a creative enlightenment may not immediately be apparent. It may help to regard it not merely as the product of the interconnecting of the two 'halves' of the counterpoint, but of a coupling - a virtual sexual experience, in fact - in which some power of the mind (Stanley's Love of - from - God ?) is acting through the up-in-heaven segment to impregnate the down-to earth element, restoring it to its eternal identity and authenticating by its action a newborn entity, a spiritual comprehension.When this happens, a metamorphosis will occur. The visualisation initially seen as specific to Stanley's experience will have become de-personalised and will have taken on a mantle of universality.The painting will energise, come alive and take whatever meaning the viewer's responses decree. Since each of Stanley's counterpoint-metamorphoses is an element in the time-continuum of experience, its embrace of a 'before' and an 'after' can express feeling in motion, as Stanley's fellow Slade student Isaac Rosenberg implied when he perceptively said that Stanley's pictures were everlasting, having no beginning and no end. (Rosenberg, as sensitive a poet as a painter, was killed in action in April 1918, and Stanley's comradely sympathy - his suffering must have been terrible - was deeply felt.)
Not only were Stanley's shapes so assembled on the canvas that they provided the required counterpoint, but they were designed to extol the emotional or dramatic or cathartic or reclamatory or revelatory or even redemptive energies inherent in the 'perpetual motion' between the counterpoint's oscillating elements. These are the effects which give his depictions such powerful overtones.These longed-for unities, these metamorphoses, which Stanley so vividly described in trying to explain his visionary paintings, were the mysterious ecstasies which raised him into new thought-worlds, his up-in-heaven. Each counterpoint reflected a new concept, a comprehension, an enlightenment, usually beyond words. However impalpable, it existed in Stanley's mind as a permanent entity - eternal - and can hopefully attach to ours. It was feeling distilled and justified.
whatever forms Stanley conceived his ultimate life-frame, his 'God' -
and for him they may have had to do
with his classic concept of universal Love - he believed that
he found himself under compulsion to undertake was done to the
of that indefinable concept. In that sense he was
convinced he was empowered when in visionary
mode as an Imitation
Christ of the Bible he was familiar with from childhood or as a
disciple of those other
figures, such as the Buddha, whose spiritual outlook he came to
In the great
dialectic of Life between Eros
energy, creativity, hope) and Thanatos (the death-force, decay,
despair) Stanley trumpeted Eros, even to the very hour of his passing.
its disciple, a true son, like Christ, of his God.
Spencer stands at the end of the
long line of great
English poets of transcendence. He may even be the last, there
have been none like him since, and no apparent prospect. His art, insistently flickering the afterglow of
Victorian idealism into an increasingly
disillusioned twentieth-century, is surely inviting us,
without the least attempt at flourish or virtuosity, to
value an equivalent joy in our own lives, however diverse our