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Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see. Paul Klee

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Spencer, Stanley - VM - Anne Marijke Spijkerboer

 
Stanley Spencer: Last Supper
 
 
 
Bony Feet and Illuminated Toes
 
by Anne Marijke Spijkerboer
 
When looking at the painting Last Supper (1920) by Stanley Spencer (1891-1956), we are first of all confronted by two rows of bony feet with lots of sets of toes. They stick out from garments that look like they have been sculpted. On the feet bright light is falling. Some of them are bent due presumably to the onset of rheumatism. As viewers we are particularly led to notice that they were given a welcome cleansing and are now resting after considerable exertion.
 
When you try to connect the feet and garments with the men sitting behind the table, you get confused. Even though to the right there are four men and four pair of feet sticking out from underneath the table, they do not really match. The person at the end of the table on the right has to be sitting in a very strange angle indeed in order to fit with the pair of feet at the end of the row. It seems to take the men at the right some effort to keep themselves sitting upright. One little push and they slip down to the floor. The men to the left are sitting down more comfortably, although the first three seem to hold up their hands in a repelling gesture. And what is protruding from behind their backs? Cushions, or do they have wings?
 
A Christ with a small head holds a bread cut into two like an opened book in his hands. He looks intently (or sceptically?) at the disciple (John?) who is bending over with wavy hair to inspect the bread. Wine is nowhere to be seen. At Christ’s own left hand a curious figure is furtively putting something into his mouth (this must be Judas). What is that strange, large hand doing there between Judas and Christ? Has Spencer made a mistake? Nobody looks cheerful. The man in the foreground to the right looks bewildered at the opened bread, the men to the left seem to make an averting gesture. The disciple at the back to the right holds his hand pensively to his mouth as if pondering what on earth he has ended up in.
 
The background with its meticulously rendered rows of bricks with light and shadow effects is striking. Light is also playing a mysterious role across the table in the bowls with pieces of bread. Where is it coming from? The open window to the right seems too small to be letting in so much light.
 
Stanley Spencer, who seems to be largely unknown outside of England, painted this work not long after World War I for a private chapel of a prominent Roman Catholic, Sir Henry Slesser. I would have loved to have seen his first reaction to this painting that has remained in the chapel for a long time. Spencer did not involve himself with the avant-garde of his time. Still his images remind one of dreams, surrealism, deep symbolism and alienation. While looking a strange sensation takes over. You wonder most of all what causes the suspense in the image and the feeling of heaviness in your own stomach. The tension is rising. What is about to happen?
 
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Stanley Spencer: Last Supper, 1920, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 122 cm.
 
Stanley Spencer (1891-1951) grew up in Cookham-on-Thames in the south of England. A lot of his work is set in his birthplace. He did not involve himself with the modernism of his time, but orientated himself especially towards 19th-century Romanticism. He mastered several styles, from a symbolic and comic book-like style to a type of realism which was followed by Lucian Freud. Before World War I Spencer enjoyed a steady faith, in which he experienced especially much love and few shadow sides. When he returned from the war his faith was shattered. He held fast to love as the central theme of his faith, but did not recover his almost naïve former trust.
 
The exhibition ‘Painting between Heaven and Earth’ by Sir Stanley Spencer is on view till January 15, 2012 in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam (www.kunsthal.nl).
 
Dr. Anne Marijke Spijkerboer is a teacher and writer in the area of the visual arts and theology. She has published two books. She is a reformed pastor in Rijswijk, The Netherlands.
 
ArtWay Visual Meditation October 16, 2011