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The Eyes Have It

The Image in Form: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes

edited by Richard Wollheim
Harper & Row, 320 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Adrian Stokes died on December 15, 1972. The headline of the first obituary announced: “The Modern Ruskin Dies.” Time may well show that as a writer on the visual arts Stokes was of comparable importance; but it is revealing of the cloak of privacy and of reticence with which he was always surrounded and had always protected himself that his death should have first been made public by reference to someone other than himself. For some time Adrian Stokes had been something of a cult figure, and an important influence on a small but slowly widening group of English artists, philosophers, and critics. His books, many of them out of print, were sought after; PhD dissertations were being written about him. But to the general public and particularly in America his name meant nothing. This collection of Stokes’s writing, however, should begin to win for Stokes the recognition his achievement deserves.

In 1925, when he was twenty-three, Stokes accidentally met Ezra Pound in Italy (playing tennis). Pound gave him a letter of introduction to Bernard Berenson in which he described Stokes as a young man with a streak of genius; Stokes characteristically never bothered to use the letter. He was formed as a thinker by places rather than by people—by the London of his childhood but also by Rapallo, by Venice, by Arezzo, and by Rimini. The previous year he had met the Sitwells (also in Italy), who were “the first to open my eyes,” but their world was not his; if there was something of the aesthete about Stokes there was more of the puritan—he was an austere man, who disliked preciosity and frivolity and who was repelled by the florid.

In the early Thirties, as a critic for the Spectator, he was writing what were among the first serious reviews of the art of Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and Barbara Hepworth. Yet when he began to paint seriously himself a few years later, his work had nothing to do with advanced currents in British art (his own painting came closest, I suppose, to Bonnard, although he didn’t come to know Bonnard’s work until later). From the start he was, as Kenneth Clark remarked in a Criterion review of the Quattro Cento (1932), Stokes’s first important book on art, “a solitary.”

In his review Clark invoked the Ruskin parallel and for want of a better perhaps it will have to do. Certainly I can think of no other English-speaking critic who had the ability to write in a prose so close to the beauty of the objects he was describing and who simultaneously took such a broad and original approach to his subject. Pater was an even more important influence in the formation of Stokes’s literary style, and he shared with Pater a deeply intuitive approach and many of the same enthusiasms. But although Stokes was never didactic in quite the sense that Ruskin was, there is even in the early writings an underlying urgency, a sense of something that has to be communicated; he had more ideas about art than Pater, and he was untouched by any nostalgia for the past. On the other hand, as opposed to Ruskin, Stokes was a thinker of remarkable consistency. He left behind no emphemera or trivia; each book acted as an extension of the last. And by the time he reached full maturity as a writer Stokes ceased to be a critic at all, in Ruskin’s sense.

With Ruskin something is built up, praised, at the expense of something else that is bruised, devalued. Stokes’s approach came to be the opposite. As the experience of art went deeper he ceased to criticize or to judge; he rejected nothing. It might seem reasonable to expect that Stokes would be closer to Roger Fry, whose writing career overlapped with his, but they had even less in common. Stokes learned something from Fry’s superb gift for visual analysis, but the differences between their approaches can be summarized in their attitudes to Cézanne: Fry tended to subscribe to the view that Cézanne turned portraiture and landscape into still life, whereas Stokes suggests that he dealt with figures and still life by drawing on the Provençal landscape. Of the London National Gallery Baigneuses he writes:

They absorb, and in absorbing rule, the environment. Beyond the long seal-like woman who regards the depths of the background, the standing, studious, twin-like girls with backs to us lean across toward the trees and clouds as if to be those upright trees…. The tall, contemplative figure on the further bank remembers for us the stretching movement that, in effect, has crammed the center where the two groups of bathers meet. Rich with dynamic suggestions, the movements coalesce into a momentary composure so that even within the crowd there appears to be airiness and space. It is now that we contemplate the broad back, laid out like a map, of the sitting woman with black hair on the left. Only in art, in an image, in a concrete realization of emotional bents, such powers with their reconciliation are found perfected.

Another image comes to us in terms of the heads of hair of walnut and stained oak. It speaks to us of the strength of the trees in those women and of the tawny arena on which the bodies lie and, by contrast, it includes the circum-ambient blue, the knife-like blue day that these nudes have crowded to inhabit. They feed on the blue, on the distance at which the seal-woman exclaims. The close, clumsy yet heroic flesh sips the sky.

Fry had described these same figures as “almost geometric abstractions.” His formalistic attitude implies a simplification, a reduction, Stokes’s an opening up. Fry tended to compartmentalize, to separate—art is one thing, life another. One of Stokes’s greatest gifts is his ability to relate things.

This brings one to the psychoanalytic bias of all Stokes’s work. His work is unique in that his visual intensity—his writing and even his painting convey the impression of a man obsessed by looking at things rather than by describing them, depicting them—is informed by a perhaps profounder immersion in psychoanalysis and a wider knowledge of psychoanalytic literature than that of any other writer on art. In an autobiographical passage on his childhood in Inside Out (1947) Stokes recalls the occasional screaming fits when he used to shout without end, “I want it all right,” and he goes on to say, “I shall show how a good mother was finally constructed in the external world as well as in myself. Art has played an important part.” The Image in Form contains extracts from all his writings on art from The Quattro Cento to his last book, Reflections on the Nude (1967). What might be called the journey inward and upward is charted with vividness and with a cumulative impact that might seem surprising in the work of a writer whose style, at first contact, seems so glancing and allusive.

Stokes’s style, for all its beauty, is difficult. Already in The Quattro Cento there is a characteristic quirkishness. Stokes reshapes the meaning of words, shuffles syntax. The originality of the images is at once apparent, less immediately so the meaning, the argument. Then there is his deliberately antihistorical bias. Stokes had, I suspect, some contempt for art historical methods; his discussions of Italian art, for example, deliberately ignore the complexities of Renaissance iconography. The associative techniques fostered by psychoanalysis sometimes result in a strange diffuseness, a certain lack of focus; there is a tendency to be repetitive (although the thought is so dense that one is often grateful for this). But in The Image in Form Stokes has been fortunate in having the collaboration of his friend Richard Wollheim, who has edited the volume, beautifully organized the material, and written a preface that is the first serious study of Stokes’s work.

The book begins with the writings which deal most generally with ideas about art and how we look at it, and then moves on to the passages which use the discoveries of psychoanalysis to illuminate the nature of the creative process. These are followed by essays on individual artists and works of art, and the book ends with a section entitled simply “Places,” and with some brief fragments of autobiography. In other words the progress is from reflections on the nature of art to an investigation of the workings of art, to art in life, and finally to life lived as an aesthetic experience.

Central to Stokes’s aesthetic is the distinction that he observes between the modes of “carving” and “modelling.” In The Quattro Cento Stokes had already begun to isolate the quality of carving, but the differences between the two methods of procedure are explicitly worked out in his next book, Stones of Rimini (1934), particularly with reference to the reliefs in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, then still universally ascribed to Agostino di Duccio. In Color and Form (1937) the same terms are with characteristic independence applied to painting. It is indicative of the tenacity of Stokes’s mind and of the steady evolution of his thought that he should have begun with a passion for architecture (“mother of the arts”), an art form whose scale the body can most readily respond to and identify with, and that through a love for stone (architecture’s noblest material in the classical, Mediterranean world) he moved on to an interest in sculpture and thence finally to painting, in a sense the most abstract of the visual arts. Later he was to speak of the painter as the artist par excellence and of painting as “the representative of art in general.”

For Stokes the carver is, in the first place, the artist who shows the most intuitive respect for his medium—and here Stokes shares the views of Henry Moore and his other artist friends who were then much concerned with the notion of direct engagement with materials, and hence with a return to a kind of craftsmanship which they felt was ignored by both academic and recent “high art.” Faced with a block of stone the carver seeks to release its inner, secret life, its fettered luminosity. He finds a “face” for it, discovers its image. Stokes was throughout his life highly conscious of developments in contemporary art, but only later did he make it clear that the “image” is not necessarily representational but can be found in any meaningful form. The title for The Image in Form was suggested to him when he had to choose between two completely abstract relief constructions by Soto and found that the “image” in one was more compelling. Just before his death he told me that he had come to feel that Morris Louis was a finer painter than Rothko because in Louis “the image is stronger.”

Carving is by definition slow and results in works of art in which the raw material, the embodied image, and the artistic personality behind it achieve an interdependence, a cohesive quality characteristic of the art to which Stokes most responded as a young man and which he continued to love best. It results in an art that is calm, self-contained—an art that is, so to speak, “out there.” The carving mode, Stokes felt, made itself perfectly felt in much Italian art of the early Renaissance, which he characterizes as Quattro Cento, although he uses the word unhistorically (hence the use of two words rather than one) and loosely; for him, the Quattro Cento qualities of carving are also to be found in much classical Greek art and later in such painters as Vermeer and Cézanne.

Modelling, as opposed to carving, is more immediate and has an element of greater physicality, greater aggression—the making of something out of nothing: clay or mud kneaded or slapped into the form of a torso, twisted into a human limb, The effects achieved by a modelling approach tend to be more dramatic and arresting than those evoked by the carving method, and they have the property of coming toward us, of taking us over; but ultimately they engage us less than do the more contemplative works of the carver which call into play the accumulation of experience that goes into the process of looking as well as making. Stokes never says so specifically, but he was instinctively most attracted to art that has a strong quality of frontality about it, an art in which planes are arranged in depth but remain parallel to the surface plane. Sudden diagonals into depth, vortexes, abrupt foreshortenings made him uneasy. Even in his early writings, however, Stokes realizes that the carving and modelling approaches are not exclusive, that they interact, and he doesn’t claim supremacy for either of them, even in Renaissance art. But there is no doubt where his allegiance lies.

Applied to painting the terms inevitably acquire a slightly different meaning, and the distinction between them is at least implicitly softened. Bare canvas cannot contain the hidden image waiting for release in the same way as living stone. In painting there is always an element of attack, of imposition, an initial aggression which Stokes in his desire to “put things right” at first refused, I think, to face, but which he came increasingly to see as a necessary adjunct to the first creative impulse. In The Invitation to Art (1965) he was to write: “If attack be reduced below a certain minimum, art, creativeness, ceases; equally if sensibility over the fact of attack is lulled.” But in Color and Form it is the virtues of the “carving” painter that are most exalted, that painter who strokes or builds the picture surface up into life, instead of making violent inroads into depth or simply illuminating or decorating its surface.

The painter who follows the methods of carving is also a true colorist not only because he uses color as his principal means of expression, employing it to define mass and to evoke depth, but because he also creates a sense of luminosity that seems to emanate from behind, from the white canvas itself. It could be argued, as Stokes does of Cézanne’s use of it, that color at its fullest aspires to the condition of white light which incorporates every hue. Already in Color and Form Stokes had a deep sense for the feeling of unity which is achieved by great art not through isolation of any of its elements, but when none of its component parts is denied its existence, when nothing is defeated or destroyed. What remained to be explored were the struggles by which the unity is achieved.

When Stokes began to formulate his ideas about art, in the 1920s, he was already aware of the importance of psychoanalysis. His own analysis by Melanie Klein, who he came to believe had extended the theories of Fread with the greatest truth and perception, continued throughout the Thirties. Richard Wollheim’s preface provides a lucid account of the way in which Mrs. Klein modified Freud’s view of infantile development and examines its relevance to the development of Stokes’s thought.

Stokes attempted to relate his obsessive concern with the two modes that he felt characterized all artistic procedure to the two “positions” (the paranoid schizoid and the depressive) which Mrs. Klein postulated as governing infantile development, and which she saw as significant for an understanding of the disturbances of adult life. From the point of view of his writings on art, I think it may be fair to say that these attempts forced on Stokes a heightened awareness of the way in which the power and poignancy of art are the result of its creators having learned to “fit together,” to employ the whole of themselves, the good and the bad, the mature and the immature. With this understanding of the way in which art “works” his writing began to show a new feeling for the continuity of art and, simultaneously, for the individual artistic personality. The concern with relating things, fruit of his psychoanalytic experience, leads to an opening out, a blurring of outlines and of boundaries, and to a greater awareness of the value of each artistic achievement. The prejudices which are at least implicit in the earlier works are broken down by a new feeling for the wholeness of art.

From the 1940s onward there are specific references to psychoanalytic thought and experience in Stokes’s writing, and occasionally the terminology is puzzling to a reader not versed in psychoanalytic literature. But in his book Michelangelo (1955), an artist who was to such a large extent the initiator of those devices which for lack of better words one must still call mannerist or baroque, and which Stokes had earlier by implication condemned, the new depth and complexity of his thought found its clearest expression. Here he saw the outward “otherness” of art and what we project onto it as inextricably fused:

…in spite of the difficulties of analysis, we are well aware in general that, on the one hand, a work of art is an epitome of self-subsistent or whole objects that can neither be superseded nor repeated, an epitome of particular and individual entirety; while on the other hand, striding in upon the presentation of the concrete, upon the rendering of experience in terms of touchability and the synthesis effected by the eye that perpetuates (in visual art) the image of a separated and outward thing, there comes the tendency to gain for such poignant particularity, connections with everything else, connections that blur, a kinship with the universe, a singleness that vibrates at its junction with the singular; there comes, maybe, the homogeneous experience of the “oceanic feeling,” of sleep, the prototype of death and disciple to the unmatched bliss of the infant at the breast: these contents too are communicated in terms of the senses.

Looking becomes an artistic process in its own right.

In his early works Stokes had already demonstrated his ability to give a “face” (it is an expression he used frequently in his discussions on carving) to the creative act. The later works, from Inside Out onward, give a face to the way we experience it. Perhaps Stokes’s greatest achievement is his ability to capture those fleeting moments of aesthetic apprehension which I believe we all experience but which are mostly so fragmentary that they vanish before we can analyze or come to terms with them. Stokes has the ability to re-evoke these moments in words that do not so much pin them down as keep them vibrating in the mind like afterimages of an intense experience of color and light. Toward the end of The Image in Form (from “Living in Ticino, 1947-50,” published first in 1964), he shows how the kind of visual experience that we encounter daily can flood our consciousness in such a way as to destroy the barriers between the eye and the mind:

As I walk under the arcade of Locarno’s main square, I see in a clear and liquid shade a café table with a light-blue cloth that touches a stone pier. I think I would be entirely safe there: leaning against the pillar I would be able to partake utterly of every thought: I would be immobile, provided for, as in the womb yet out-of-doors: existence within and existence without would be thinly divided: in the blue tablecloth I would clutch the sky.

From the start Stokes had been a “visual” writer, by which I mean that he could conjure up the presence of a work of art or re-create a visual experience through words. The later books are visual also in a new way. They increasingly take on the quality of revelation rather than of exposition. The prose acquires a quality of simultaneity that one associates with the process of looking. The values of visual art, Stokes had suggested at an early stage, are values of space in the abstract, and the highest achievements of visual art not only absorb but transform time into space. The sensation I carry away from reading one of his books is that of having seen something. The mature works tend to be more elliptical, in a sense even more difficult than the early ones; but they are also more compressed and have the wholeness that he sought for in the art of others. The defects—the diffuseness, a lack of balance, of structure—persist, but in a sense have been absorbed into the process of thinking itself. In Three Essays on the Painting of Our Time (1961) he writes:

Though things and their systems remain outside us, we seem to get to know them by taking them in; for the most part, however, we do not will them to flood through every atom of our being in entering the store of what we call the mind. The work of art, on the other hand, suggests to us physical and mental states of envelopment and of being enveloped.

Stokes’s writings on art act on us in the same way as their subjects do. I hope that The Image in Form will introduce to a wider public what I believe to be among the most valuable and durable contributions to the literature of art in this century.

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