When British artist Stanley Spencer CBE RA (1891-1959) began the production of his figure drawings (later known as the Beatitudes of Love series) he was met with the disdain of art critics and members of the public alike (Rapport, 2004). The driving force behind this criticism was not the subject matter, which concerned itself with the act of falling in love, but with the aesthetics of the figures themselves. The primary sin for which Spencer was held to account was their ugliness. However, while for the viewing public the ungainly figures Spencer had depicted in various stages of caress were unpleasing to the eye, within the scope of his artistic vision it was this ugliness that made them beautiful.
Contemporary society continues to suffer a similar form of myopia when it comes to the notion of love and its narrative construction. Popular culture, entertainment media, the internet and social media have each played a pivotal (and often detrimental) role not only in how the idea of love is formulated but how one’s worthiness of love and of being loved might be calculated.
This chapter reassembles the collected works of Spencer, which in life have been distributed to galleries and private collections around the globe, in the hopes that in doing so we might reconnect with the artist’s original motivations behind their creation. Rather than seeing love as an emotion or experience which is the soul realm of the young and aesthetically pleasing, it demands a renewed consideration of the innate beauty which exists in the everyday ugliness that is also essential to love and its longevity. In doing so, it prompts readers to embrace the same revolutionary philosophies bought to life by Spencer in these works and in his accompanying commentary of them.
In addition to a critical reading of the artworks and the commentary of Spencer and his critics, the existing scholarship of Nigel Rapport will act as a platform from which my discussion builds. In assessing the Beatitudes f Love series, the chapter argues for the importance of considering a new philosophy around the importance of romantic love, by specifically embracing representations which challenge contemporary expressions of love and the aesthetics of the human form.
Rapport, Nigel. (2004) “Envisioned, Intentioned: A Painter Informs an Anthropologist About Social Relations”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 10:4, pp. 861-881.
Rapport, Nigel. (2016) Distortion and Love: An Anthropological Reading of the Art and Life of Stanley Spencer. London: Ashgate.