IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - On the ‘freedom’ and the ‘liberty’ to distort the human figure: The art of Stanley Spencer as case-study
In this talk Professor Rapport explores ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ as distinct concepts in relation to the art and life of the British painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).
When Spencer died in 1959 the most common phrasing in the obituaries that appeared in the press concerned this ‘art rebel’ or ‘rebel painter’ who had remained ‘one of Britain’s most controversial painters’. ‘The most fulfilled, courageous and irreplaceable British artist of the century’, it was explained, ‘Spencer was one of the few contemporary British artists who could be called with some confidence a man of genius as distinct from a man of talent’; yet ‘many people cordially dislike Spencer’s work, his deformations and distortions.’ Devoted to his native village of Cookam, on the Thames, Spencer painted not only landscapes and portraits with loving detail but also the ‘memory-feelings’ which he felt were a ‘sacred’ part of his consciousness and by which he came to walk with God. If he could but convey the vision of heaven-on-earth that he himself was vouchsafed when he saw the world through the lens of love, there would be a global revolution in behaviour, mores and science, Spencer was convinced: he was ‘a new kind of Adam’. But were not the representations of human beings in his visionary paintings ugly distortions, even marks of an immoral nature?
Drawing on Spencer’s own words, the talk asks two questions: ‘Can Stanley Spencer be described artistically as his own man, pursuing his own creative path?’. And does the controversy surrounding his name—the often uncomprehending, censorious or uninterested viewing public—evidence his unfreedom or the reverse?
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