When I posted this photograph I took of Stanley Spencer’s Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937) on Instagram and Facebook, the response was, for the most part, one of incredulity and revulsion. The level of discomfort was notable.
Artist Patricia Preece is the woman in this intensely erotic painting. Her indolence is a world away from the insecure, manipulative posturing we now understand as arousing. With a cool, almost ironic expression, she taunts her husband with her nakedness. Her body is flaunted in what we perceive as all of its imperfections. That which we fail to understand is that the imperfections are not hers, but ours in failing to see the beauty that so captivated Spencer.
For his part, Spencer’s desire is incandescent – this is symbolised not only by his stiffening sex, but by the burning coal fire behind him. The raw leg of mutton by Preece’s body is a metaphor for the depth of his carnal appetite for her: he would consume her if he could, make her part of him, finish her off. Her value to him is high; she is flushed with pinks and streaked with gold, whereas he paints himself in the wan colours of a bruise. The space she takes up in the portrait reinforces her emotional importance; he surveys her as a king would his kingdom. The responsibilities of this sovereignty, however, may be more grim or troubling than he would like, as his downturned mouth suggests.
Double Nude Portrait is magnificent because it captures the desire fuelled by intimacy and the complexity that such desire can entail. As a culture, we no longer recognise this; the only sexual desire we feel permitted to acknowledge without being considered lesser is that inspired by bodies which conform to the transhumanist ideal. Authenticity and emotion are irrelevant. The context of marriage is, in itself, now widely regarded as antithetical to arousal, so dreary that we require new sexual partners – even only in a visual format – to become aroused. Desire has become confused with social aspiration and, in the case of pornography, with stress relief.
We have forgotten what it is to feel desire based on intimacy rather than appearance.
In this portrait, Spencer and Preece are neither young nor beautiful, which, to us, makes their nakedness – and the nakedness of his desire – strange and overwhelming. Yet there is no more beautiful a portrait of a man’s conflicted sexual appetite for his wife: Spencer’s desire is specific rather than general, based on intimacies, grievances and experiences to which we are not privy. He wants her as she is, arrogant in her display, teasing, without pose or artifice. Her lack of nurturance is shown by the shrivelled representation of her breasts; there is no enfolding here, but he still wants her. More than anything, it is his lack of idealisation that is mesmerising.
Spencer doesn’t care about the viewer’s – or the culture’s – tastes; in Double Nude Portrait, his sexual interest concerns the woman he has married, a woman he could devour like a leg of mutton. And it is, perhaps, the elemental intimacy of his desire that so unnerves us.