Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War – Review

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By Jade Jackman

This reveals one of the starkest truths about warfare: national identity and comradeship are not created through propaganda, but through the shared aspects of social life.

Upon first meeting your respective partner’s parents, there are several things that you should avoid in conversation. Topics that are unadvisable are as follows: speculations on where your spouse inherited their nose from, cookery tips and war. Unsurprisingly, war divides opinion and unless you are extremely comfortable and familiar with them, I would highly recommend not bringing it up. Nevertheless, after a few glasses of wine, you might find this unsavoury topic surging to the front of your mouth. You will be happy to note, however, that suppression is not always necessary–especially if you have been to visit the Stanley Spencer exhibition at Somerset House.

Strangely, the exhibition opened in November. Strange, I hear you ask, surely that makes sense? After all, we dedicate the penultimate month of the year to remembrance. Surprisingly, this is what makes the timing of this exhibition odd. Normally, the topic of war is swallowed up by flag-waving and the rhetoric of nationhood. Such behaviour calls for a surge of nation pride; a shout that cries out that the death of the nation is the ultimate tragedy. The Stanley Spencer, however, is a three dimensional exhibition–it does not restrict its narrative. In other words, Spencer’s works beautifully articulate the plurality of war. It goes beyond the idea that the nation is the ultimate casualty, as he captures the interaction between the personal, the domestic and the international sphere in his pieces. Having said that, the whole atmosphere of the exhibition captures what it means to be British. As an artist, Spencer’s style is that of the British eccentric–but, in my mind, that kind of nationalism can be tolerated.

The exhibition is comprised of a series of large-scale canvas panels that are thematically linked by war. Each painting has a different composition, and they are entirely devoid of blood. Yet, the National Trust cannot come under criticism for the glorification of war. Whilst it is undeniable that Spencer’s playful style brings a humour to his work, when it is combined with such painful subject matter it becomes ominous. On one level, it is a visual articulation of his personal struggle to get over the horrors of war; on another, it demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit through our ability to find humour in the darkest of circumstances. He even described the paintings as ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obiligato’–in case it isn’t obvious, Spencer did not intend the works to resemble a mortuary.

Although the atmosphere is not sombre, it is not a comfortable experience for the viewer. Throughout the images, Spencer maintains a fine attention to detail. His works, each borne out of memory, focus on the domestic as opposed to the combative. For me, this reveals one of the starkest truths about warfare: national identity and comradeship are not created through propaganda, but through the shared aspects of social life. Spencer illustrates such habits as washing lockers, inspecting kit and, of course, the very British taking of tea. Each image is situated in the rolling hills of our grassy homeland, and for some, that is unsettling enough. But for those who take offence to sight of the Home Counties, I have one thing to say: focus. Re-align your vision to the limbs, those twisted limbs poking out of the green foliage, as they are integral to the exhibition.

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At first glance, Spencer’s ‘Map reading’ is bleak. The soldiers fan out around the central figure of the captain and look as if they have been left for dead on the floor. The premise of this assumption is the viewer’s prior knowledge. In other words, instead of seeing a peaceful or relaxing moment in the sunshine we attach death to the image due to its context which demonstrates how significantly the First World War has affected our mode of analysis. Instead of tranquillity, the green space is now only a backdrop for bodies. The soldiers are scattered around and seem somewhat dismembered. In place of the ghastly horror offered up by photographs, the exhibition provides us with Spencer’s subconscious vision of a haunted Britain. The paintings serve as a poignant reminder that winning is not real victory, as the ghosts and memories of war have been absorbed into our once perfect countryside.

Sadly, the National Trust cannot show the original of the great Resurrection, which is painted on the east wall of the chapel. Instead, they supply the viewer with a full size projection that sits isolated in the final room. Spencer’s unrealistic style gives his figures a malleable quality. It is obvious that this image is meant to stand out; there is something that differentiates it from the rest. The painting is, to begin with, larger than the others, and at the bottom, the scene is quite chaotic as mules and men lie together in a mangled heap. Yet, there is also a sense of dignity about the image, a suggestion of peace and transcendence. The white line of crosses invites the viewer to identify with the individuals in the throng before their eyes reach the blackness at the top of the piece. At the top, the painting ascends into darkness, providing the perfect space for reflection and allowing the viewer to consider the many complexities of war.

Picture: Somerset House

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War

7 NOV 2013 – 26 JAN 2014

Open daily 10.00-18.00 (last entry 17.30)

Opens until 21.00 (last entry 20.30) on Thursday 21 November & 12, 19 December

Terrace Rooms, South Wing

Free admission

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