People who are disturbed by religious enthusiasm—that is, who bear a common result of a stateside upbringing—will be relieved to find that Sir Stanley Spencer’s claim to being a visionary or religious artist was not exactly that his faith was a decided issue. He once told journalist Joan George, “I never know what to say when people ask if I believe in God.” And except for their titles, many of his paintings—like The Centurion’s Servant and the Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta panels—would not appear to be religious paintings at all. Spencer does not so much dress religious themes in contemporary garb (as Renaissance painters are said to do) as put contemporary themes in a religious light. That means, of course, that all of contemporary life—its sexuality, its materialism and object love, even its most brutal wars—become themes for this spiritual painter.

Some reviewers have made heavy weather about the shocking character of the paintings in this exhibition. A superficial look at the gallery space, however, would lead one to believe that it is the signage that viewers puzzle over more than the paintings. I saw that a long queue of gallerygoers had formed before a didactic label on two nudes; the viewers were no doubt determined to discover what they were supposed to find shocking.

Had they looked at the paintings, they might well have found something in the odd qualities of Spencer’s draftsmanship. One peculiarity of English visionary painters from William Blake to Samuel Palmer is their way of connecting the head and neck (usually covered with snaky locks) to the body so they grow out of the latter as a sort of undifferentiated tumescence. This technique has its roots in stone carving, where it has certain structural advantages, but in painting it might seem merely to perpetrate an eccentric British canon. Predictable grievances could also be raised against Spencer’s preference for inflated limbs and overgrown (if expressive) hands, which appear so often in the religious pictures.

Fortunately, Spencer is a virtuoso painter. He has different modes. These are distinct enough that were it not for his signature way of laying down paint a la prima, leaving small interstices of bare canvas, one might imagine different artists at work. His religious paintings lie in the English visionary tradition of Blake and Henry Fuseli. His murals, not only for reasons of subject, resemble those of Depression-era realists like Thomas Hart Benton. The Beatitude series involves near-caricatures in the style of magazine illustrations. The landscapes, a fourth genre, have a certain informational value that relates them, on the one hand, to the topographical Dutch tradition (Jan Vermeer’s View of Delft) and also those Pre-Raphaelite landscapes that seem to steamroll nature, recording data at all distances with equal precision. Finally, the so-called nudes of this painter, which are akin to those of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, are really landscapes of flesh—a point tacitly acknowledged by Fiona MacCarthy, the show’s catalog essayist, who speaks of the “acreage” in these pictures and also by Spencer himself, who once told his first wife the only real love affairs he had ever had had been with places.

He told her this before moving to greener pastures, or so he thought. For his relationship with his second wife, Patricia Preece, was apparently painful in the extreme. Are we supposed to find something prurient in the ménage that developed here? The facts are that Spencer left his first wife and later divorced her to marry a woman with whom he never had sexual relations. She continued to live with her companion and lover Dorothy Hepworth, to manage Spencer’s money, and to live as a distant object of his desire. If there is something perverse here, it has nothing to do with sexual license, rather with the human capacity to search out the most painful situation imaginable and then inhabit it.

Driving our fascination with Victorian prudery is really an interest in the Victorian capacity for eroticism. While the logic may seem a bit odd, Victorians were erotic because they had something to repress. By the time of Bloomsbury and on into the 1920s, when Spencer began his mature paintings, this repression had largely disappeared, but Victorian eroticism persisted, bounded only by a sense of privacy and ghostly, but real, social barriers. If Spencer’s nudes are in some way landscapes, this is partly because they seem to stake out Preece’s body as a kind of private territory. This is true in the double sense that it was by painting that Spencer acquired the funds to pay for their relationship (her gifts of jewelry and lingerie), but also, on a metaphorical level, his painting was a way of claiming her body as his own.

Some of this sense of British post-Victorian privacy persists in the better-known work of Lucian Freud. Similar mounds of flesh are revealed, but concealed is the relationship among the sitters and between the sitter and painter. Who are these people of Freud’s hometown of Paddington? Why are they being painted? The paint and the nakedness conceal much more than they exhibit. Similarly, in Spencer’s own so-called “Leg of Mutton” Nude, the opacity of the fire and the titular leg of mutton—the difficulty of deciding whether they are symbols—is of a piece with the opacity of the relationship depicted. For as much as we know all the particulars, still the painting seems to tell us that the essence of any intimacy is not to be seen in the mere presence of a body, no matter how closely rendered.

In contemporary America, there are few a priori social barriers, even ghostly ones. As a consequence, I doubt that it is possible for an American painter to limn a vision of privacy by bringing all the facts to the surface of a painting in stunning detail, and in doing so to signal an absent intimacy. Without this ethos (call it convention), we cannot point to an understood absence. This is no joke: Ours is a country where we have to be told what it is that offends and what to find shocking. We do it by reading the signage in art shows, like this one, and in our lives. Unfortunately, this does not keep us from then setting about being indignant with the special fervidness of the new convert.CP