Vol. 4 No. 13 · 15 July 1982

Robert Melville writes about the paintings of Adrian Stokes at the Serpentine Gallery

1445 words

When Adrian Stokes introduced Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic researches into his appreciation of painting the results were sometimes so astonishing that I bought one of her books on child analysis. It was very, very clever, but I never got through it and stayed with Adrian’s extravagantly courageous application of her ideas. He made much use of her terminology in his last half-dozen books, and was particularly impressed by her belief that it is in the first year that the infant has to resolve its ambivalence towards the mother’s breast by discovering that the good breast, the one that feeds and envelops, is the same breast as the bad breast, which does neither. In other words, it seems to me, the child has to discover identity in difference. This is a phrase used with revelatory force in Colour and Form, when Adrian was discussing painters as far apart as Alfred Wallis and Picasso. It was published in 1937, several years before his insights became more difficult to follow under the influence of Kleinian psychoanalysis.

‘We got a bit sick really of the good breast,’ says Julia Strachey in her amusing comment on his preoccupation with infant development. Klein makes the point that failure on the infant’s part to resolve its ambivalent attitude to the breast sows the seed of neurosis, and Julia Strachey, listening to Adrian, gathered that if the infant feels he has been landed with a bad breast he sort of savages the mother, then spends the rest of his life trying to mend her, and that that’s what the artist is doing, trying to make amends. An enchanting example of Adrian’s imaginative use of the idea is in his remarkable essay on the art of Turner in which he finds a correspondence between Turner’s glorification of the colour yellow and the infant’s spiteful projection onto the mother of his stream of yellow urine. This is a poetic leap with a vengeance.

The retrospective exhibition of Adrian’s paintings at the Serpentine Gallery is for some reason a last-minute selection from many loans. This is rather a pity because it seems to have denied the catalogue a list of titles and dates. Otherwise it’s an informative and quite well-illustrated document; it includes an anthology of excerpts from writings about the man and his work (of which far and away the most valuable in the context of the exhibition is Richard Wollheim’s note on the pictures painted in the last year of his life), an excellent biographical and bibliographical chronology, and one long paragraph and three short ones by Adrian himself on his painting – from two pieces written in the Sixties. He was excessively modest about his paintings; he explained the qualities he sought as deficiencies, and many people took him at his word.

Nudes, olive trees, bottles and the spaces they occupy are almost exclusively the subject-matter of his work and the Serpentine effectively presents them according to content: so one gallery is devoted to landscapes, with olive trees seen through a heat haze or in the light from an overcast sky, another gallery is filled with still-lifes which endlessly depict bottles and bowls – an obsession which brings to mind Morandi. But his objects look more withdrawn than Morandi’s, less like little families posing for group photos.

The nudes occupy only one wall of a third gallery. He did not paint as many figures as landscapes or still-lifes, but there could have been a bigger selection if the choice had not been limited to the Sixties. In the late Thirties he studied at the Euston Road school and his painting came under the influence of Coldstream. This was still evident in his studies of the naked female figure painted in the Fifties. It was a good influence and seemed to suit his temperament. There was one in particular, painted in the mid-Fifties, in which the unpretentious near-frontality, the unassuming serenity, so free from flourish or drama, held the promise of a theme as inexhaustibly repeatable as bottles and bowls on a table-top and a blank wall behind. The later nudes are more colourful and very charming, and surprisingly concerned with quite drastic changes of pose. I found myself paying special attention to the treatment of the breast, looking not so much for signs of Kleinian influence as for the clefts and clumps which Adrian found in many paintings by Turner, seeing them as ‘allegories of feminine form and function’. A reclining nude, painted in 1967, is probably the most complicated pose he attempted: she is turning onto her belly and the pendulous breast formation can be seen as two clumps and a cleft, with an emphasis on ‘clumps’ which makes the figure less charming than the others, especially as it projects too far out from the space it occupies, and thus fails to interpret volume in the way that was his interest as a painter. That interest was to depict ‘without menace in slow and flattened progression’ how objects and their spaces are of equal importance.

It was on the still-life that his restrictions were most strictly imposed. They ultimately yielded the richest results, but they are so close to one another in size and content, yet in a sense so interdependent, that they offer problems of presentation. When I was involved with him in arranging his Marlborough Gallery exhibition 17 years ago he told me that he had found that people’s eyes slide across the surface of his pictures, registering nothing, so that they had to remark on the frames or even on the type of canvas. He thought the best hope of getting people to look was if several canvases were so close together that after seeing their identical values intersecting they could perhaps begin to submit to the very slow tempo of each canvas. I remember him saying: ‘My pictures respond only to a long look. Something might happen if grouping makes the first impact.’ So we finally persuaded the directors of the gallery to let us unframe all the still-lifes and hang them edge to edge from top to bottom and entirely cover one large, rectangular wall. The result was a vast oblong of still-life painting and extremely impressive. I do not remember if there were any sales.

Adrian is not here to advise on the hanging at the Serpentine. He would not have been displeased, but he might have done something about the nudes. The still-life gallery far exceeds one’s hopes, and conveys a curious atmosphere of suppressed excitement. As one moves along a long line of them towards the end wall they are subtly changing in a way that suggests unhurried movements. The changes are all towards an increasing mastery of the medium. One of them in the approach to the wall depicts five clear glass decanters standing in an uneven row across a table-top. Again I am reminded of Morandi, but only because these five decanters share with Morandi’s groups of vessels a faint suggestion of anthropomorphism; the transparency of the glass leaves only a slight whitishness to impede the colour of the background and gives them a spectral look, as if they have silently glided onto the table of their own accord through the background wall. It’s a hard-won virtuosity.

The hang has been more or less chronological, and the five decanters were painted early in the year of his death. We are now at the end wall, where the pictures he painted in the weeks he was dying are hanging together. The catalogue calls them ‘Last Eleven’. It is no exaggeration to describe them as his masterpieces. Richard Wollheim has written movingly of the conditions in which they were created: ‘In the last few weeks Stokes had increasing difficulty in bringing the canvas into focus; his grasp on the brush was uncertain; he did not always pick up from the palette the colour he sought.’ But as Wollheim goes on to say, ‘the hand and the eye, so long the agents of the mind, turned incapacity into freedom.’ They have lost the hard-won look. They are insouciant.

I feel justified in turning again to Adrian’s essay on Turner. He refers to Turner’s use of a rough blue paper on which his panoramic pencil drawings ‘suggest messages that have appeared from within a wall upon its surface’. Especially in the case of Adrian’s last paintings (the most beautiful of all being Last Eleven No 11, where the wall is diaphanous and the two vessels only half emerge), the words in praise of one great artist apply equally to the artist who wrote them.

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