Pencil on paper
53 x 43.2 cms (20.83 x 16.98 ins)
An important and rare example of Spencer's Beatitudes scenes on the relationship between the sexes.
In 1954 David Sylvester curated the first major exhibition of drawings by Stanley Spencer for an Arts Council exhibition. Writing in the catalogue Sylvester declared that "Spencer's unwillingness to part with his drawings - either via the dealer or via the dustbin - suggests the immense personal importance they have for him... With Spencer, the vital moment of creation occurs when he draws. It is the act of drawing that is the real act of externalising his vision - or perhaps one should say his visions"
The present work is a study for one of the sexually explicit series, The Beatitudes of Love which Spencer painted between September 1937 and October 1938 whilst living on his own, having been rejected by both Hilda and Patricia. In this series Spencer explored the relationships between imaginary couples, giving them fictional characters, names and occupations, and accompanying the works with long and erotic accounts of their sexual activities. In Consciousness he invented 'cowman and wife', commenting that their distorted figures reflect that they have so much to say to each other (see K. Bell, Stanley Spencer A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, pp. 146-147, 459).
The Beatitudes of Love were Spencer's most radical excursion into the realm of sexual imagery. Faced with the difficulty of selling or exhibiting these pictures, he was forced to return to more recognisable religious subjects through which to express his ideas. While many of these later paintings are more readily comprehensible, they often lack the inventiveness and inner tension which is evident in Spencer's work of the thirties'.
Keith Bell (exhibition catalogue, Stanley Spencer, R.A., London, Royal Academy, 1980, p. 166) describes the Beatitudes of Love, Spencer's eight paintings for a series designed for his Church House project, the 'Church of Me' that he mapped out in paintings and drawings between 1932 and 1937, 'Late in 1937 he moved briefly towards a more intensely sexually orientated group of eight pictures which he called The Beatitudes of Love. Beginning in 1937 with Passion or Desire (private collection), he produced seven paintings in the series before he left Cookham to stay with the Rothensteins in October 1938. These paintings belong to the Cana series for the Church House and may be seen as a radical development of the earlier Domestic Scenes. They were intended for small cubicles off the side aisles of the Church House which were to contain street scenes such as the Promenade of Women, 1938 (private collection) and A Village in Heaven, 1937 (Manchester City Art Galleries). The cubicles were to be private spaces where 'the visitor could go and meditate on the sanctity and beauty of sex'.
These pictures were painted at a time when Spencer had recently separated from Patricia Preece [his second wife] and was facing the disastrous consequences of his financial profligacy. He was also badly depressed and, as he was to do again in Adelaide Road in 1939, he retreated into the imaginary world of his paintings. These took on a reality which freed him from the immediate problems of everyday existence: 'You must remember that a picture is a real live thing', he confided to his diary in 1955. To assist this impression Spencer invented names and occupations for the characters in the Beatitudes paintings. In Romantic Meeting, or Nearness, 1938 (National Gallery of New Zealand), the couple are a 'serving girl and husband', and the pair in Passion, or Desire, are called 'Charley and Bertha'. [In the present work the couple are shop assistants.] In some cases the picture has a lengthy story attached describing the couple's encounter, an indication of the importance which Spencer attached to the union of his painted and written work.
In the paintings all the couples are in a state of sexual excitement, and in the overwhelming love for each other they are, as 'perfect examples of marriage as a prayer to God - the threshold both of redemption and mystical union with each other'. As such the couple becomes a single perfect unity: 'Each of the pictures shows', Spencer wrote, 'the twinned and unified souls of two persons. The composition turns the two into one person and becomes a single organism'. The sexual encounters of the couples symbolise not only the means of achieving a harmonious life, but also life itself. As such the paintings are Spencer's personal statement of a philosophy for life which he had been developing since 1932.
The composition of the paintings is significantly different from the earlier 1937 works. Where the Adorations paintings and Love on the Moor 1937-55 (The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) had been carefully associated with specific parts of Cookham, The Beatitudes are set against plain backgrounds. Instead the works are held together entirely by the inter-related forms of the 'couples'. As Anthony Gormley has remarked, 'the people and the emotions between them are sufficient (Exhibition Catalogue, Arts Council, The Sacred and the Profane in the Art of Stanley Spencer, 1976, p. 30). This is a new departure for Spencer, for whom the association of place had played a crucial role in his painting form his earliest works. The idea was to continue in the 1939 Christ in the Wilderness series (Art Gallery of Western Australia), in which the landscape provides an anonymous symbolic background to the central activities of Christ.
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