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A visionary projection of the landscape of the soul Jean-Christophe Ammann on Stanley Spencer

‘A call reached me from somewhere across the fields (a call that disappeared almost imperceptibly, like a shooting star, so that in the end it seemed to have arisen from deep within my own breast)…’ Pier Paolo Pasolini

The self-portrait that Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) made in 1914 at the age of 23 is beautiful beyond all reason. It measures 63 x 51 cm and is painted on canvas. He worked on it for three months during the first half of the year, and sold it for £20 to the gallerist Edward Marsh, who was to become a lifelong friend. At the time Spencer was fascinated by portraits from the Italian Renaissance and may well have been inspired by one of the young Botticelli in the National Gallery in London. But none of this is of any significance compared with the vulnerability and openness of this face. It is filled with intense anticipation. And since it is a self-portrait, the young man views himself in a mirror, where he sees himself differently compared with the four previous self-portraits of 1913. These sheets in pencil and ink seem primarily to be about shading and tonalities, as though Spencer already had a clear image in his mind’s eye of the final work. When he realised the oil painting, it was to become a milestone, as important as any Ecce Homo, a visionary projection of the landscape of his soul.

Sensuality and lucidity, passion and a willingness to give of himself meet in this physiognomy that seems to breathe the world. An air of astonishment passes across this face painted in brown hues: astonishment at itself. Yet in this astonishment there is also a certainty that keeps every avenue open. The face seems younger than his 23 years. The dark eyes have a questioning gaze. They are expectant and hungry, like the lips of the handsome mouth, as full as a ripe fruit. The curved eyebrows are high, underlining the sense of astonishment; the young man’s hair falls sideways across his forehead, accentuating his youthful looks. And then there is the neck, like a stem – one side bathed in bright light – bearing the browned head aloft. Yes, the neck carries the head like a trophy; powerfully and unmistakably it reinforces the dream-like aspect of this countenance, this seductively silvery gaze. The boy in this self-portrait could have stepped out of an early film by Pier Paolo Pasolini. And what does the mirror say? It is worth remembering a work by Giulio Paolini from 1967. On a scale of 1:1, he replicated a small-format frontal portrait of a young man by the Renaissance painter Lorenzo Lotto on photo-canvas, and changed the title Head of a Young Man into Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto. The effect is remarkable. In an instant the viewer slips into the role of the painter, or at least finds himself looking over the painter’s shoulder. And one has a sense of the eye contact between painter and sitter, as though the painstaking observation of facial features had suddenly – however briefly – been replaced by mutual recognition and the young man and the painter had exchanged a few words. In the case of the painting by Stanley Spencer, it is the mirror that captivates the young man’s attention. How often did he exchange a few words with himself during the course of his painterly observations? In The Mirror in the Front Hall, the Alexandrine poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863–1933) describes a ‘seeing’ mirror:

The luxurious house had a huge mirror
in the front hall, a very old mirror,
bought at least eighty years ago.
A good-looking boy, a tailor’s assistant
(on Sundays an amateur athlete),
stood there with a package.
He gave it to one of the household
who took it in to get the receipt.
The tailor’s assistant,
left alone as he waited,
went up to the mirror, looked at himself,
and adjusted his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt.
He took it and went away.
But the old mirror that had seen so much
in its long life –
thousands of objects, faces –
the old mirror was full of joy now,
proud to have embraced
total beauty for a few moments.

Stanley Spencer is, in my view, one of the most important painters of the twentieth century. When I saw the retrospective at the Royal Academy, I decided I had to show his work at Kunsthalle Basel (where I was director for eleven years). My decision came to nothing, for lack of a partner. To this day Spencer is an unknown quantity in continental Europe – an inexplicable state of affairs, as far as I am concerned.

What is it that makes his work special? There are two reasons: the innovative nature of his compositions and their painterly potential. Spencer had a phenomenal spatial imagination, which could perhaps be described as a pictorial memory chamber. I am sure that the musical input that came to him from his father, William Spencer, must have coloured and influenced not only his sense of orientation, but also his spatial intuition. It comes as no surprise that two of his brothers were professional musicians and that his older brother and both his sisters played musical instruments. In his group compositions Spencer achieves a spatial complexity that often veers into a form of two-dimensionality that is quite without compare. The contrapuntal logic of this apparent self-contradiction, in combination with extremely complicated high angles and vistas, constantly shifts direction. He took this innovative strategy to a masterly extreme in the series Shipbuilding on the Clyde in the first half of the 1940s. Even the formats of these panels are audacious: 580.7 cm in length by 50.7 cm in height. Closely interlocking, organically interconnected pictorial units resonate within their own confines by virtue of a visual acoustic that takes the beholder’s breath away.

Stanley Spencer was a patriot. His service during the First World War with the Royal Army Medical Corps as an orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol, and later in Macedonia, crucially informed his work. He subsequently drew on this experience in his depictions of biblical themes. But here, too, his unprecedented vision allowed him to portray connections, links and visual angles in such an unusual manner that one can only shake one’s head in wonder.

The 50th anniversary of Spencer’s death on 12 December 2009 served as a reminder that we should not forget the ravages that Realism was subjected to in twentieth-century painting. In 1914, when Spencer was painting his self-portrait, Cubism was in its late phase. Today, artists are finding their way back to Realism. Many are looking for ways out of the realms of digital art, seeking to reconnect with the existential dimension of figurative painting, to make it part of their active consciousness.