Christ Walking Down Main Street
"Stanley Spencer: An English Vision," which runs at the Hirshhorn Museum through January 11, is touted by its designers as an exhibit by an artist who broke the rules of 20th-century art. Spencer, they say, chose to center his career around painting biblical and allegorical subjects, and he adopted a realistic style that placed him outside of the mainstream. Spencer's work is certainly striking, but the effort to show him as a rebel falls flat for the simple reason that his paintings are supreme examples of the way in which twentieth-century thought has changed the nature of religious art.
Spencer's most noteworthy characteristic as an artist is that he illustrates biblical scenes by placing them in modern settings: usually his hometown of Cookham, near London. For example, Christ Carrying the Cross (1920) shows Christ making his way down Cookham's main street while Cookham's villagers gawk at him. Similarly, The Marriage at Cana: Bride and Bridegroom (1953) shows a modern couple sitting in front of a tiered wedding cake. This is, of course, an old, old device – until recent centuries, it did not occur to artists to dress their biblical characters in archaeologically correct clothing. – but modern audiences are apt to be jolted by such pictures. As Spencer explained to a group of students who wondered why the crucifiers in one painting wore modern clothes, "It is your Governors and you who are still nailing Christ to the cross."
Spencer is not the only modern artist to have undertaken this task of bringing biblical scenes home to the viewer. What makes his paintings especially interesting is their joyousness; as one of the exhibit labels points out, it is hard to believe that any of people in Spencer's Resurrection paintings are headed for hell. For example, in The Resurrection: Reunion (1945), a mother newly raised from the dead plays with her children, while two lovers kiss in front of their heart-shaped tomb.
Spencer could find divine beauty in all objects: his painting of Shipbuilding on the Clyde (1940-43) is in the shape of an altarpiece, and one of the most beautiful paintings in the exhibit is entitled The Scrap Heap (1944). At a certain point, though, the viewer begins to grow uneasy. The Crucifixion (1958) shows Christ's tormenters as distorted in shape – well, this is theologically helpful and in fact has precedence (at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, a 15th-century Flemish altarpiece depicts Christ's tormenters with hideous expressions). But why is Jesus himself distorted? And why, in The Baptism (1952), is Jesus shown as an oddly squatting figure with his neck folded like an accordion?
One would like to think that Spencer was trying in this way to show Jesus as taking on man's sinful nature. A glance at Spencer's secular paintings, though, shows that the problem lies deeper than that. When critics complained of the ugliness of one series of paintings, Beatitudes of Love, Spencer responded, "In their appearances these couples might not conform to whatever might be the conventionally supposed canons of beauty, but to me in expressing the miraculous wonder in their awareness of each other, they express the beauty of that meaning."
Perhaps. This is in fact the response given by many 20th-century artists when they explain why they have created art that strikes the average viewer as ugly. Certainly a case can be made that artists needed to break away from the prettification of the Victorian era. One wonders, though, whether future generations will read deeply into Spencer's portrait of Christ to see the figure's essential beauty, or whether Spencer has simply committed the cardinal sin of art, and created work too obscure in its message to reach its audience.
Spencer therefore epitomizes the dilemma faced by many 20th-century artists: to reach beyond convention but to remain intelligible. Such a balancing act can indeed be achieved, and the proof of it is in a picture that is not displayed at the Hirshhorn, for the simple reason that it is painted on the wall of a church in England. Spencer's Resurrection mural for the Sandham Memorial Chapel breaks away from traditional Resurrection paintings both in its homeliness (using the word in its English sense) and in its disturbing touches. The figures in the painting have not died quietly in their beds: they are soldiers who have been slaughtered during World War I and whose bodies are crammed together in the battlefield graveyard. One man is trapped in barbed wire; a fellow soldier clips the wire. Another soldier unwinds his grave cloth as though he were Lazarus. But joy exists as well: enemy soldiers shake hands, soldiers read their gravestones with curiosity, yet more soldiers pet a dog and some turtles, and in the most Spencerian image of all, horses that have died in battle raise their heads and look together at Jesus, accepting the cross-shaped gravestones from the hands of the soldiers.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Independence Avenue at Seventh Street S.W., Washington, D.C. 20560. Metro: L'Enfant Plaza (Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Green Lines). 202-357-2700 (day); 202-357-1618 (nights and weekends); 202-357-3235 (TTY). 10 a.m-5:30 p.m. daily (museum); 7:30 a.m.-dusk daily (sculpture garden). Closed December 25. Free admission
"Stanley Spencer: An English Vision." Through January 11.
Museum Watch: Sacred Music Without the Sacred. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson.
© 1997 Heather Elizabeth