15 November 2013

Stanley Spencer at Somerset House

I was looking for an exhibition to visit and an email from Somerset House alerted me to Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War.

I was aware of Spencer's work, or, more accurately, his style, but had not seen any of his works in the flesh before or, if I had, they had made no impact on me. This slight knowledge was enough to get the curiosity juices flowing. The exhibition was free and that always helps when making a decision about seeing something unknown.

The works were all taken from their usual home at the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel for which they were commissioned by the private benefactors who built the chapel just to house them.

The above picture shows the paintings as they were displayed in the chapel. The exhibition had the side panels arranged the same way but the end piece was integral to the chapel and so could not be moved. Instead a picture of it was projected on to a wall.

The pictures all depicted scenes from Spencer's experience of the First World War and they focused on the normal life of the soldiers rather than the fighting.

The busy pictures made with broad strokes did little to impress me artistically. If anything, it reminded me of the fat lady pictures by Beryl Reid that were briefly popular a few years ago.

Whatever their artistic merit, they did convey something about a soldier's life and, despite this subject matter, carried an eerie sense of peace. There were people moving in every picture yet the overall impression was of stillness.

The busy canvasses meant that I could look at each picture for quite a while spotting more and more little details as I did so. The, not very complimentary comparison, was with Where's Wally. That business alone made them a rewarding set of paintings.

Heaven in a Hell of War is a neat little exhibition that compliments the paintings with come contextual notes and other works on both Spencer and the chapel.

I am still not a Stanley Spencer fan but at least now I have a better idea of why not and also why other people might be.

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