A D R I A N S T O K E S
Stokes - the Painter
by Geoffrey Newman
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A Status of Recognition: the Paintings of Adrian Stokes
I begin with a personal recollection: a grey summer evening in 1982, the opening of a retrospective exhibition of the work of Adrian Stokes at the Serpentine Gallery. From Kensington Gardens, walking into the cool light of the gallery, the first impression was of the walls enriched. No 'drama', an irradiation. A reconciling of apparent opposites: a tremulous steadiness, a hesitant assurance. The exhibition passed with little press attention; in the case of a smaller display at the Tate Gallery in 1993, critical reaction was largely negative. While regard for and interest in Stokes's critical writings have grown and continue to grow, the qualities of his paintings have seldom been accorded proper recognition except by a few discerning writers.
In writing on painting, Adrian Stokes gave full regard to the significance of colour in relation to form, justifiably opposing the view often held by theorists and critics of colour as an 'embellishment', 'as little more than a by-product of other more important processes'. He continues: 'the tendency of true colourists is to discount the separateness of illumination, to identify with the colour of objects so that these objects appear to be self-lit by virtue of their colour, as if breathing'.
As if breathing ... Words particularly apposite to the nature of colour in Stokes's paintings. I would consider his work as a painter to be peculiarly satisfying; and by 'satisfying' I do not imply a moderate, limited significance. Too much emphasis may be given to a modesty of intent as well as scale. Rather, absence of overt drama, avoidance of strong contrast, colour elicited, gradually elicited, from form and shape, yield an experience of completeness. Particularily in the long series of still-life paintings, Stokes's most characteristic achievement, the forms of a cup, a bottle, a bowl, attain rotundity, fullness. Colour is paramount, in still-lifes, nudes and landscapes alike. As Patrick Heron observed, 'the subtlest nuances of tone and reflected light ... become the material of a significant architecture'.
The word 'architecture' may seem at first inappropriate with regard to paintings often devoid of strong articulation, balance and opposition of dark and light. Nevertheless in the still-lifes, the simple homely objects, even when palely luminescent against backgrounds likewise pale, achieve presence through stillness, through self-sufficiency. It will be noted how Stokes avoids traditional composition in these groups, composition by means of contrast between dominant and subordinate elements. One may see these gently swelling shapes as analogous to externalisations of the good objects of the inner world - a concept central to Stokes's aesthetic. Morandi may be recalled; but the architecture of Morandi's still-life paintings and prints often has a grandeur, the forms imposing, weighty; whereas Stokes explicitly affirmed that he was 'interested in a status of mutual recognition, as it were, between objects and their spaces where there is nothing monumental'. For Stokes 'poetry exists in such identity of different, distinctive objects that hold apart yet uphold each other'. This is the kind of poetry exhaled by Stokes's glasses, bottles and jugs.
In the article already quoted, Heron makes certain points of comparison with Bonnard. One might note that the shapes in Stokes's painting Overcast have a similar, somewhat ragged, irregular character to those in certain landscapes by Bonnard; there is the concern for a maximum of colour variation within form, attained touch by touch. But in Bonnard there is a great weight of emotion, perhaps especially in landscapes in which the arrayed splendour of the external world is so often reverberant with unfulfilled desire; one is made aware of the distance between the artist and all that profusion. In comparison the forms, the objects in Stokes's paintings do not carry such burden of longing.
In the kind of painting most admired by Stokes, respect for the surface is fundamental; among his contemporaries, he praised Ben Nicholson for his 'carving conception, on which, as I conceive it, the main stream of the contemporary movement is grounded'. But Nicholson's surfaces more obviously orientate themselves towards 'flatness' in a modernist sense; Cubism was basic to the evolution of his work in the early thirties. Stokes wrote of Nicholson's 'confidence and command ... English art is not usually so debonair.' Stokes's mature works are assuredly not debonair, not stylish. There is an amplification, rather than a declaration, of the surface, and the concentration upon the objects themselves set the paintings apart from Cubist influence.
One parallel between Stokes's painting and Cubism may, however, be noted. In many paintings by Braque and Picasso around 1909-11, the categories of still-life and landscape become in a sense fused; buildings and trees in landscapes are elements in a poetic ordering as of objects seen close at hand; in still-lifes, conversely, patches and dabs of near-monochrome browns and greens may suggest, through their ambiguity, great distance, spatial depth. In a very different way - and attained more through colour than tonal contrast - Stokes's still-lifes present to us forms in a kind of space which could be read as vastness. This is especially apparent in the eleven still-lifes painted by Stokes in the month before his death. The more abrupt handling is combined with colour brilliant, pure and intense. In the last of all, the flasks in the foreground may seem less like small objects in an interior than very large ones in open space. In No. 10, the largest of the sequence, still-life becomes landscape, panoramic, iridescent. But the distinctness, the uniqueness, of each object is not thereby overborne; each retains identity, though not with the contained stillness of earlier works. Mention of this last series underlines the fact that the maturing of Stokes's art came quite late, from the mid-1950s when he himself was over fifty. The tentative exploration of earlier works yields to a completed integration of ends and means, but not to a manner, or the rigidity of a set of stylistic features.
Nor is there any imposition, manipulation. In paintings of nudes, one may note some affinities with William Coldstream's work. Stokes was in close contact with Coldstream in the late thirties, and wrote admiringly on his art: 'There is no clutching in a Coldstream, no greedy clutching at a shape; it is authoritatively gripped, all the same, and will be gradually disclosed'. Nevertheless, the intersecting plotting marks strategically placed, which are so characteristic of Coldstream's work, point to the conceptualisation 'nude in the studio'; the figure is, albeit unaggressively, subjected to a searching, a scrutiny, and at least to anextent, thereby depersonalised. With Stokes's nudes, one is more conscious of the 'status of recognition' between figure and space, to the extent that there may be very little difference between the colour range of the figure and its surroundings; in one example an overall reddish-pinkish-orange suffusion.
Stokes wrote of the Venetian painters' 'power to conceive shapes as possessing their own inner light and life'. The colour in his own paintings is un-Venetian in its frequent tendency towards an opalescent paleness rather than richly saturated hues, but the sense of internal illumination is there - lighting is not applied to objects but, rather, appears as coming from within. The use of white is significant: we see, as it were, the whiteness of the surrounding wall condensed in the lightest areas of his paintings.
In looking at these works it is relevant to consider Stokes's antipathy to Surrealism, all the more so in view of the psychoanalytic framework, indebted to Freud and Melanie Klein, of his writings. If, for Stokes, a work of art should be regarded both as an affirmation of the external world and as an objectification of inner states, then the descriptiveness, the 'illustrating' of the unconscious to be found in Surrealist paintings becomes unnecessary, redundant. A good painting will reveal its author;what need for the further contrivances consequent on an often superficial acquaintance with Freudian theories? In his writings Stokesemphasised the power of art in which the internal conflicts remain manifest in the act of reparation itself. One must recognise in Stokes's paintings a degree of anxiety in the pulsations of the surfaces, but conflict is stilled. He writes of his interest, as a painter, 'in an interpretation of volume that is without menace'. The forms in space are benign.
In the article on Coldstream already quoted, Stokes made the point that one significant aspect of Cezanne had been largely neglected in subsequent art. 'Few artists since Cezanne have depended with comparable necessity upon the long presence and utter stillness of the model: without introduction of a summary or symbolic or decorative element there has seemed in our time insufficient scope for making pictures through the endless art of building up appearances'. In his own paintings Stokes devoted himself to this, although one might speak of a gradual revelation, rather than a construction, of appearances, achieved in 'the mood of utmost homage to the motif as a thing apart'.
The relevance of these works for the practice of painting in our own time resides, I believe, in this very fact: that these must be among the least conceptual of twentieth century paintings, the least governed by, or in pursuance of, pre-existent ideas. The one idea is of a kind of painting - a kind which Stokes felt simply did not exist in his time, hence the need to make such paintings himself. Such work might, finally, be described as an art of reciprocities - the difficult, questing, ultimately unifying concern to relate perceptions, sensations to marks on a surface, to search the surface itself for what it may bring forth in terms of purely painterly meaning.
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