There can’t be many people on this side of the Atlantic who can claim any familiarity with the paintings of Adrian Stokes (1902-1972). If you’ve heard of Stokes at all, it’s probably because of his prolific writings on art. Even in his native England, Stokes is far better-known as a writer than as a painter. Yet a painter he was, and a very good one, too, as we can see in the exhibition of pictures from the Adrian Stokes Estate on view this summer at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries.
Stokes took up painting in his mid-30’s, when he’d already written half a dozen books and a number of exhibition reviews for the London Spectator . According to the late David Sylvester, whose essay on Stokes is reprinted in the catalog of the current exhibition, “For the first twenty years his pictures were the work of a sensitive amateur. But then a way of painting crystallised, above all in the still lifes, which produced some of the most beautiful and personal paintings of appearance done in England in the twentieth century.”
Lest this sound like too grand a claim for a painter who approached his pictorial tasks with an informed and fastidious modesty, Sylvester hastened to add that “Stokes is decidedly a minor artist, but also an authentic one, an exquisite one and a poetic one.” Stokes’ own assessment of his paintings was characteristically less ambitious in its claims-and more eccentric, but also more precise, in describing his aesthetic goals.
“It would be ridiculous,” he wrote in 1968, “to pretend that my fuzzy paintings of bottles, olive trees and nudes, dim as blotting paper, project an armature of the architectural effects that mean everything to me, that seem to me to express everything, all shades of the relationships in which our feelings are involved.” To “express everything”-and to do so in an elaborate, elliptical and highly individual prose style-was precisely what Stokes set
out to achieve, and often did achieve, in writing about some of the greatest paintings, sculpture and architecture in the Western canon. About his own paintings, however, he was more concerned to acknowledge what he had deliberately set out to avoid in order to achieve an aesthetic effect that was entirely personal and thus perfectly consistent with the scale of his own sensibility as a painter.
“I have to confess that my interest as a painter-only as a painter, mind you, not as a spectator-is in an interpretation of volume that is without menace in slow and flattened progression as of the lowest relief, in which any section is as prominent or important, or is as little so, as any other section. I am interested in a status of mutual recognition, as it were, between objects and their spaces wherein there is nothing monumental, no movement, no rigidity, no flourish, no acuteness, no pointedness, no drama. What’s left? It seems a fluidity … I fully admire all these [other] qualities, but in the act of painting I don’t aspire to them.”
As a painter, then, Stokes was clearly in flight from the kind of high drama and intellectual excess that characterized his writings on art (and perhaps his life as well). Painting was an escape to an inner self, a more innocent self, a search for a serenity that was stripped of all the demands of the hammering ego so conspicuously displayed in his writings on art. For the purposes of that search, still life and landscape proved to be more sympathetic-more anonymous-subjects than nude female models, which in Stokes’ paintings have a way of provoking the drama and acuteness he wished to avoid.
In his still-life paintings of bottles occupying a highly atmospheric space, Stokes achieved a tonal purity that is his most distinctive accomplishment as an artist. It may be that in his landscape paintings of olive trees, the subject itself offered too little resistance to the fluidity he cherished; and in the paintings of female nudes, the subjects offered too much resistance to the purely aesthetic response he was aiming for. The nude, after all, was a subject on which Stokes had lavished a good deal of serious thought. In a book called Reflections on the Nude (1967), written around the same time he did the two paintings of nudes in the current show, Stokes characterized the subject as “the object of many passions,” “an immense power” and many similar terms. I think these nudes are very fine paintings, but they are shaped by impulses and ideas that are emphatically different from the emotions governing the still-life paintings.
To fully comprehend that difference would require a lengthy examination of the influence that Freudian psychoanalytic doctrine exerted on much of Stokes’ written oeuvre -not something I shall undertake here. Suffice to say that a great deal of his writing on art is besotted with the kind of sexual projection that is a staple of psychoanalytic therapy. David Sylvester quotes from The Invitation in Art (1965), in which Stokes addresses the subject of “how Gothic is the female genital.” (“Think of the pointed arches, fold within fold, of a cathedral door, of turret slits and narrow apertures,” and so on.) Stokes’ writings are full of similar projections, which are sometimes carried to hilarious extremes. It’s something that devoted readers of Stokes learned to put up with, for he also had a genius for recounting the details of a wide range of aesthetic experience.
For readers interested in acquainting themselves with Stokes’ writings, the most comprehensive collection of them is to be found in the three stout volumes of The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes (1978), edited by Lawrence Gowing. Just out this summer from the Pennsylvania State University Press is a single volume that reprints two of Stokes’ early books, The Quattro Cento (1932) and Stones of Rimini (1934). Early on, too, Stokes wrote a pair of books still fondly remembered in ballet circles: Tonight the Ballet (1934) and Russian Ballets (1935).
Meanwhile, the current exhibition, Adrian Stokes: Paintings , with those enchanting still-life pictures, can be seen at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, from Aug. 12 to 30. They were on display earlier, from July 2 to 12, before Salander O’Reilly closed for its summer vacation.