A painter for the people : Stanley Spencer, art, politics and populism
This thesis is a study of the paintings of Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) and is designed to challenge received accounts of his work. Its theoretical perspective is that of 'cultural materialism' and its purpose is to place Spencer and his pictures within the social, cultural and political history of their time. It begins by outlining the four critical constructions of 'Stanley Spencer' that it challenges and by describing Spencer's somewhat oppositional location in the institutional complex of the artistic field. Then, rather than adopt a conventional chronological narrative, sets of paintings are studied in relation to their social context or historical moment. Here, several fresh arguments are advanced about particular aspects of Spencer's work. Thus, features of his landscape output are interpreted as at odds with a mainstream tradition sponsoring dominant notions of 'Englishness'; his original and politically charged solution to the problem of representing industrial labour is discussed; he is claimed as a Realist painter and his role, alongside others, as a sympathetic investigator of everyday life is examined; the 'stoic response' to the First World War of Spencer and his peers is identified and differentiated from the 'traditionalist response' of the powerful and the better known 'radical response' of the war poets; his libertarian sexual politics is specified and the utopian dimension of his erotic pictures clarified; his paintings of Christ and resurrection are then placed in the context of radical Protestant traditions. Thus, rather than limiting itself to the biographical reductionism of earlier accounts or the narrower art-historical approach of more recent 'revisionist' writing, this study offers a way of understanding Spencer's work which emphasises its populist, radical and, in effect, political dimensions. His art emerges as a profoundly public one - offering ordinary life and experience as worthy of representation in forms aspiring to public display and soliciting a new reading practice from viewers confronting them.