Spencer, Stanley - VM - Caroline Levisse
A Moment of Peace in the Chaos of War
by Caroline Levisse
When the First World War started, Stanley Spencer was 23 years old and had just graduated from the Slade School of Art in
A few months before the Armistice, Stanley Spencer had received a letter from the British War Memorials Committee, asking whether he would like to create a painting for the planned Hall of Remembrance (which was never built). It was suggested that he paint a religious service held for troops at the front, but ultimately he was free to represent whatever he wanted. Spencer accepted and in 1919 delivered a painting entitled Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at
The scene is inspired by Spencer’s experience with the Field Ambulance unit in
There is indeed a sense of peace in this painting. Spencer did not want to represent the atrocities of war, the devastation and pain it brought. The wounded soldiers are shown with restraint. They are covered with blankets so that we do not see their wounds. There is not a single drop of blood in this scene, not even in the operating theatre, which appears as a silent and serene place. About scenes with wounded men that he had witnessed, Spencer said that, to him, it was “not a scene of horror but a scene of redemption.” He also explained that his painting “is intended to convey a sense of peace in the middle of confusion. The figures on the stretchers have been treated with the same veneration and awe as so many crucified Jesus Christs and not as conveying suffering but as conveying a happy atmosphere of peace.” The artist compared the wounded soldiers to the dying Christ. Such analogy between Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of humanity and the soldier’s sacrifice for a greater cause was not uncommon during and after World War I.
Spencer justified his intent by recalling how Christian believers look at the death of Christ: “I was right in making it a happy picture, as the early painters were right in making the Crucifixion a happy painting.” Here he must have been thinking about the depictions in which Jesus is crucified but appears peaceful and does not display any signs of suffering: he triumphs over death. The crucifixion is a happy picture because Christ’s ultimate sacrifice carries the promise of the resurrection. It is a symbol of hope. The wounded soldiers have made a sacrifice and are now arriving at a resting point, where the medical staff will help them, take care of them and one hopes save them.
Spencer’s vision betrays his fervent Christian faith. Indeed, upon accepting his appointment as an official war artist in 1918, he wrote to Desmond Chute: “If I get this job, I shall be able to show God in the bare ‘real’ things, in a limber wagon, in ravines, in fouling mule lines.” This outlook on things is a defining characteristic of Spencer’s life and art. He was capable of seeing a sacred dimension in the most ordinary things and to see beauty in the most unusual places. He said somewhere that “everything was full of special meaning, and this made everything holy.” He believed there were two types of Resurrection: one which would take place on Judgement Day, and the other which was, according to Susanna Avery-Quash, “attainable on earth and was the experiencing of such bliss that the confusions of earthly existence seemed to pass away and heaven, albeit momentarily, seemed to be tasted.”
He could thus confer a sacred aura, a “spiritual ascendancy” to a trivial war scene. In Spencer’s painting, the ordinary opens up to let something heavenly shine through: the possibility of resting and the promise of peace after the war. For a moment, as they are stepping in the light cast on the dark by the operating theatre, the soldiers’ sufferings are transcended and peace and relief are experienced.
Stanley Spencer: Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, 1919, oil on canvas, 182,8 x
Caroline Levisse is an art historian currently based in
ArtWay Visual Meditation February 15, 2015