Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK – review

“What ho, Giotto!” was Stanley Spencer’s response to a commission for Sandham Memorial Chapel, built by John and Mary Behrend in Burghclere, Hampshire, near the artist’s native Cookham. Created between 1926 and 1932, the murals, representing his experiences as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier in Salonika, are the most original British paintings of the first world war. While Sandham undergoes restoration this spring, these strange, unsettling works visit Pallant House, placing them for the first time in dialogue with British art of the period – Chichester’s excellent collection includes Moore, Sickert, Sutherland and Nicholson.

Spencer went to war with small volumes of reproductions of his favourite artists, Fra Angelico, Giotto and Masaccio, stuffed into the pockets of his military uniform, and Renaissance fresco cycles were in his mind as he worked in situ on the tall panels and smaller rectangular predellas for Sandham. The shock, as often with Spencer, is the monumental, deeply serious treatment of domesticity. Understating violence, the paintings focus instead on everyday military life: “Filling Tea Urns”, “Bedmaking”, “Map-reading”, “Kit Inspection”, “Filling Waterbottles”, scraping soldiers’ afflicted feet in “Frostbite”. Set against the battlefield, Spencer recalled these menial tasks as miraculous: “Heaven in a hell of war”. The canvases are crowded but brilliantly orchestrated, each incident and group of people and incident clearly defined, the whole pulsating with energy and activity. Although Spencer’s characteristically clumsy, rounded figures, billowing bedclothes, towers of toast, might imply a cosy war, the horror is the context – attempts at maintaining quotidian routine amid the killing fields.

The culmination of the series is the visionary “Resurrection”, painted directly on to the vast end wall of Sandham and represented in this exhibition by large-scale working cartoons, which compellingly demonstrate Spencer’s skill and labour in designing complex figurative schemes. The scene of recovery is set on a Macedonian battlefield as war ends; rifles are surrendered, crosses handed in, soldiers reunited with dead comrades newly resurrected – a work that confirmed Spencer as one of modernism’s rare great religious artists.

To June 15,

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