I first encountered Stanley Spencer’s The Nativity hanging on the walls of the Houseman Room, the dining hall for faculty at UCL. The space in the painting was strangely described; the rhythm, set by strong diagonals, was marked by lighthearted intervals of little white flowers floating on the picture plane and by a fence drawn in raked perspective and topped by loops that engaged my eyes in a repetitive, seemingly endless, curling movement. Seven stocky figures graced the foreground – with couples embracing and a baby in a high chair closest to the bottom edge of the canvas.
The stillness of the bulky figures immediately brought to mind old Italian masters from the 15th century – Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio, above all Piero – but the earthy mid-tones that blend them into their background felt uniquely local to me. The unexpected apparition of arms, fences, doors and bodies in that humid landscape led me to perceive mystery and mysticism in what seemed to be a mundane, daily event. There was a quality of typical English culture in the way the figures gathered in this park, or maybe just someone’s backyard.
The work, which garnered Spencer a first prize award at the Slade Summer Composition Competition (1912), was painted in Cookham, the Berkshire village where he grew up. The beauty of his hometown served as source of inspiration for the young artist who enfolded Christian meaning within it: interspersed between the trees, Joseph and Mary can be seen, infused into the daily life of the local village.
If, for the British, “England is God’s own country,” in Spencer’s painting we are invited to join this earthly paradise. To this day, The Nativity holds for me a reminder of the spiritual significance a place can have, and it reaffirms that culture is not fixed.
I draw my certainty of “Britishness” in the painting not only from the light and atmosphere captured by Spencer, but also from the unusual spatial terms set out by this work. History and social dynamics are powerful agents that shape the spaces in paintings and condition how the viewers locate themselves. In The Nativity Spencer interprets a traditional subject through the particular lens of a 21 year-old British artist, painting on the cusp of WWI.
Perhaps it was a strange quality of purity and silent anticipation that so quickly separated The Nativity from other works hanging in that room. On that first encounter I was overwhelmed by how playful Spencer had allowed himself to be, how delicate and personal his depiction of a Holy moment. The meticulous way in which Spencer describes every detail of his fantasy convinced me that the artist was not bothered by conventional notions of beauty. It struck me as an “ugly” painting. I saw freedom in such ugliness and I was moved.
I realize now, after having moved to America, that many of my memories from those years in England have been framed by The Nativity. Or maybe it is the other way around; I can’t distinguish or separate them anymore. Paintings have the ability to silently lodge themselves in us. The best ones shift from external objects to psychological sites where we can see our memories and deepest feelings reflected. I only wish there were more Spencer’s hanging on the walls of American museums.
Marcela Florido, Signs of Love, 2015 , Oil on canvas, 80 x 84 inches
Marcela Florido is a Brazilian artist who has lived in Rio de Janeiro, London, New Haven, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn. She received her BA from The Slade School of Fine Art, and her MFA from Yale University School of Art. Her upcoming show at Nicelle Beachene Gallery, NY, opens on May 26th, and her upcoming solo show at Galeria IBEU, Rio de Janeiro, opens June 14th, 2016.