IT'S DIFFICULT TO DECIDE WHICH IS more interesting: the poignantly absurd personal life of the artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) or his quirkily great paintings. The diminutive, sour-faced Spencer was one of those Englishmen for whom sex was a complete mystery and then a cataclysm that seemed like salvation itself. He went totally broke and considerably nuts trying to have relationships with two women--a wife who bore him daughters (Shirin and Unity) and a dilettante lesbian artist who lured him into an unconsummated marriage just to get her hands on his house, money and reputation-by-association. (The saga was turned into Pam Gems's provocative play ""Stanley,'' which enjoyed successful runs in London and New York in 1996.) Spencer also created some of the most oddly bombastic yet subtly beautiful pictures of the 20th century. Sixty-four of them are on view in a show called ""Stanley Spencer: An English Vision,'' at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 11. (It travels to San Francisco next summer.)
Spencer was born into the family of a church organist in the village of Cookham-on-Thames, near London. He went to the famous Slade art school and pro-duced a stunning early self- portrait. When World War I broke out, Spencer enlisted in the medical corps but also served in the infantry. In 1919 he met Hilda Carline, who came from a family of artists. She relieved Stanley of his prolonged virginity, and he married her in 1925. Spencer took to going randily around the house seminude and encouraged Hilda to do the same. Aflame with the idea of conjugal bliss as a veritable religion, in the 1930s he tried to create a whole ""Hilda Chapel'' full of paintings on the joys of married life.
Meanwhile, a wanna-be artist named Patricia Preece moved to Cookham in 1927. Spencer was impressed with her society airs, her connections to the Bloomsbury group of painters and poets and--not to put too fine a point on it--her very ample bosom. He became obsessed with bedding the vamping Preece and working out a polygamous arrangement with Hilda. Preece's female lover was no obstacle--at least not to Pa- tricia, who married Stanley when he divorced Hilda. Preece moved into Spencer's house, then banished him from her bed and rented out the place. Spencer spent much of the rest of his life careering pathetically back and forth between Hilda and Patricia, unable to reconcile with either.
Through it all, Spencer kept on painting. His almost cartoony storytelling pictures--full of Matrushka-doll-like Cookhamites acting out the elaborate religious scenes Spencer thought every master artist should paint--are often homely and misguided. But in every one Spencer does a delicious riff on lighting, texture or goofy anatomy in the service of overall design. (Spencer's huge 1958 ""The Crucifixion'' is an example.) And just his fleshy portraits--with their merciless detail (the faint blue veins in Preece's breasts) and overall compassion (the mother love evident in the 1937 ""Hilda, Unity and Dolls'')--might have earned him a place in the pantheon. It's no reach to mention Spencer in the same breath as Hans Holbein.
Young artists should be inspired by Spencer's doggedly doing his own thing: moral narratives, in an age of abstraction, that ended up almost postmodern in their clashes of subject and form. And romantics everywhere will be glad to know that when their hearts lead them down paths to disaster, all is not necessarily lost. At least not when you're an artist down to your shoes, as Stanley Spencer was.