A D R I A N S T O K E S
M A I N I N T R O D U C T I O N - Richard Wollheim
But in mentioning ambition we must now ask: what was it that led Adrian Stokes to take up painting and seek at the moment when he was establishing himself as a young writer not only of fine sensibility and of original style but also and more to the point with something very definite to say, to become a painter? Stokes himself had an answer to the question, and this answer is a good starting point: if we trouble to understand it. Stokes said at the time, and he used to repeat it in later years, that he took up painting because there was no one else around prepared to paint the kind of painting that he thought ought to exist. Abstract from this answer the self-conscious hint of heroism or self-sacrifice - that Stokes was ready to step into the breach - and what we are being told, in effect, is that there is an intimate connection between his painting and some theory of painting. Whatever else may be true about it, the painting originated in theory.
Apart from those who hold to the view that art is theory, it is generally felt that to say of a man's art that it derives from theory is to denature it. It is to alienate the art from the man, and to say of at least one of them that it is dry and desiccated. Such a view of the matter is implausible in general, but in the case of Adrian Stokes it is the opposite of the truth. Rather it was just the connection of his art with his theory of art that helped to make his art so much a matter of himself.
We take a first step towards seeing this when we
recognize that for him there was no incompatibility, no incongruity between thinking of
his painting as in accordance with a theory and his feeling himself in his painting to be
under the direction of some marvellous image of painting. In a Note upon his work which he
wrote for the catalogue of an exhibition in 1968 but which, mysteriously, was never used,
he evokes 'a severe image called art glowing like a small and radiant flower'. 'Such an
image of fiction', he goes on, 'has haunted me since my first visit to Italy more than
forty years ago.' And we take another step towards understanding the unity of art and
theory of art in Stokes's life when we recognize that the theory of art on which his art
depended was one that in turn depended on his experience of art. For him, the theory of
art, the experience of art, came to form an indissoluble triad manifesting - to use one of
Stokes's preferred phrases and which he told me was one of the few things he had learnt
from the Oxford philosophy of his
day - 'identity-in-difference'. The three constituents of this triad had a common source, and we have just been given a clue where this is to be found.
It was in the winter of 1921 that Stokes paid his first visit to Italy, which was to be so momentous for his experience, for his theory, and so ultimately for his own practice, of art. He issued from the Mont Cenis tunnel on the morning of the last day of the old year, and he experienced entry into 'the counter-landscape' as he called it - counter, that is, to the childhood landscape of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens - as a moment of rebirth. In his most intimate book, Inside Out, Stokes has left us a description of that moment and the subsequent few hours which not only conveys in specific detail how he experienced Italy but also captures something of the way in which he experienced things generally. So to render the first impact of Italy he first associates to the experience an earlier experience from the age of eight and which he says had 'prepared' him for Italy. This was his first Latin lesson, and his learning of the first Latin word, mensa, 'table'. The word had survived in his mind in two related ways. It had survived as word-image, the image of a single inflected word, so that the genitive mensae, 'of a table', had come to signal 'the possessiveness of a simple love'. And it had survived as thing-image, the image of a scrubbed, sturdy kitchen-table, made of deal, later (that is, as the boy grew into the young man) as the proper setting for 'the family mid-day meal under a fig-tree, with a fiasco of wine on the table, olives, a cheese and bread'. That is the association, and here is the description: