A D R I A N S T O K E S
Stokes - the Painter
by David Sylvester
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This piece about the paintings of the great art writer was written for a number devoted to him of Les Cahiers du Musee National d'Art Moderne issued in Autumn I988. It was published there in a translation by Jeanne Bouniort as 'Note a propos de Stokes Peintre'. The long penultimate paragraph is a slightly revised version of a contribution to the catalogue of Adrian Stokes, 1902 - 1972: A Retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery from 8 June to 4 July 1982.
Almost all of the great writers on art have been artists. Some have been great artists. Others have given most of their time and commitment to being artists, but more or less undistinguished ones. Some have been writers primarily who have produced art that is interesting only for those interested in them personally or in their writings. Others have been writers primarily who have produced art which could be interesting for those knowing nothing of them or of their writings. Ruskin is a clear case of this latter category, as is Artaud. And Stokes seems to be of their number.
He did not begin painting until about 1935, when he was in his mid-thirties and had some of his finest books behind him. For the first twenty years his pictures were the work of a sensitive amateur. But then a way of painting crystallised, above all in his still lifes, which produced some of the most beautiful and personal paintings of appearance done in England in the twentieth century. That is not a vast claim to make in a French publication; it is a claim that Stokes is decidedly a minor artist, but also an authentic one, an exquisite one and a poetic one. The poetry was that of painting whose manner and matter overlapped with those of both Bonnard and Giacometti but was as English as that of, say, Ben Nicholson (with whom Stokes regularly played tennis - good tennis).
However authentic it gets to be, however moving for others, performance on a violon d'lngres inevitably embodies less of the performer's being than finds its way into his primary means of expression. The qualities in Stokes's writings that do not appear in his paintings include some of the most potent. Take this passage from the chapter called 'Gasometer and Tower' in The Invitation in Art (1965):'To put the matter the other way round: how Gothic is the female genital. Think of the pointed arches, fold within fold, of a cathedral door, of turret slits and narrow apertures. We pass into vaulted chambers of a foliate if chastened exuberance. But more than plants the animal, animal function, sustains this soaring, religious style. The Gothic female nude with low-sloping shoulders is a chastened animal, weasel-like, of an indomitable bestiality at the behest of God. Gothic iconography jutaposes the sublime and the very bad: angel and gargoyle attend entry into the mother's body; even the Virgin is a dimpled weasel.'
There is nothing in the paintings of the spirited metaphor, the mordant wit, the shockingness (which, like the rudeness of Oscar Wilde's gentleman, is never unintentional), the celebration of unconscious fantasy, the constant awareness of the drama of bodily functions, the Pateresque preciosity of language, the rich variety intricate rhythm.
What the paintings do have that is deeply characteristic of the man is a search for truth that is patient and brave, a pervasive fastidiousness of style, an unceasing sense of the transience of things and the threat of their loss, a profound respect for silence, and an attitude to art which made Beethoven intolerable, Schubert a touchstone. In painting, Stokes said, he had always been something of a conscientious objector. He amplified that remark in a statement about his painting which he wrote in I968:'It would be ridiculous 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. But 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, but this too I find anathema, I mean for me. I fully admire all these qualities, but in the act of painting I don't aspire to them.'
In an attempt to say something about what the paintings do do, I shall focus on the typical still lifes. In these arrangements of glass jars, bottles, decanters and so on, the forms of the vessels echo each other mutedly, not in the way a gathering of terracotta pots in actual space will do, sonorously, roundly, the form of one celebrating the form of another, one separately apprehended for a time but soon absorbed again into the play between one and others, voices in imitation, mingling and companionably reverberating.
It is as if Stokes, this full-throated choir in mind, looked, with a need for fastidious obliqueness, for a way to reduce the song, to distill it, to a whisper - or rather to something less portentous, say a discreet murmur. To this end, as it were, he diminished substantiality and space and shape. There, the excessively sonorous reverberations of the pots depends on the reaction to light of terracotta's opaqueness, thickness, dryness, earthiness; here, in Stokes, is a presence of transparent forms that look weightless, belong with water and air. Again, there, the sonority of the pots depends upon the positioning of those substantial forms in a space generous enough in depth to give room for an echo to be picked up from one by another; here the illusory space is rigorously shallow, the forms in it given a minimum of breathing-space. Again, there, the sonority depends on the affirmation of shape, on the observer's grasping the form of a form as surely as if he were firmly holding it; here the forms have a symmetry and a simplicity signifying clarity, only the clarity is contested and dispersed by the vaporous atmosphere in which the forms are poised, a luminously murky greyish-bluish-greenish-yellowish space that seems rather denser than the things it envelops.
The space becomes still more dense, more palpable, in the paintings done in the last three months of his life - when a tumour on the brain was wrecking his physical and mental co-ordination - and the objects still more luminous, regardless now of whether they are made of glass or earthenware, and the perception of volume fragmentary and unpredictable, and the thrill of the interplay between volume and space heightened as awareness of a flower may be heightened as it begins to wilt. The arrangement of the objects now had to be left to a friend, and Stokes tended to convey dissatisfaction with it, but this did not stop him from painting: acceptance of the sight presented to the mind is precisely what the paintings are about. Two or three weeks before the end he told his wife that he felt able to paint without any restraint and exactly as he wanted. 'This is how I should have painted.'
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