Into the Southern Playground

Julian Bell

  • ‘The Quattro Cento’ and ‘Stones of Rimini’ by Adrian Stokes
    Ashgate, 668 pp, £16.99, August 2002, ISBN 0 7546 3320 9
  • Art and Its Discontents by Richard Read
    Ashgate, 260 pp, £35.00, December 2002, ISBN 0 7546 0796 8

Adrian Stokes’s Stones of Rimini is an extended obeisance performed by a young Englishman before some marble panels in an Italian church. The panels were carved in the 1450s, mostly by a Florentine called Agostino di Duccio, who was working in Rimini for the local warlord. Three dozen illustrations punctuate Stokes’s reissued text of 1934. Many show astrological figures: Aquarius wading through water, Mercury standing among clouds, Venus in a chariot drawn by swans. There are a couple of tall landscapes, almost like Chinese handscrolls, showing steep peaks and swirling seas. There are also putti riding dolphins and angels with fluttering tunics pressing against their epicene bodies. In its own time, this iconography was thought provocatively un-churchlike, adding to the charges on which Pope Pius II had Agostino’s patron, Sigismondo di Malatesta, burned in effigy for heresy. The slightly gauche figure-drawing adds to the carvings’ fey allure, but their chief trait is an obsession with describing drapery and water in very low relief through swathes of sinuously convoluted line.

Stokes, who was 23 when he first visited the Tempio Malatestiano in 1925, was following a trail trodden by cultivated tourists ever since Burckhardt had celebrated Sigismondo’s creative pretensions in his Civilisation of the Renaissance. Only two years before, Ezra Pound had given ‘Sidg’, fighter and builder, a scratchy apologia in his Cantos. The new devotee was a product of Rugby and Oxford travelling on an allowance from a rich stockbroker father. Tall and athletic, with a graceful but predatory mien – ‘hawklike’ or ‘aquiline’ are the words most memoirs settle for – he had been lately admitted to the aristocratic circle of Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, and was offering sexual favours to the former. Osbert had encouraged a shift in the young writer’s interests from Bradleyan philosophy towards Italian art. The two books that eventually resulted – Stones of Rimini was preceded in 1932 by The Quattro Cento, now reissued along with it – would establish Stokes as a respected voice in English art-writing until his death forty years later.

Stones of Rimini is decidedly the more compelling performance. Its opening lines step forward with a cool swagger, toying with Virgilian cadences: ‘I write of stone. I write of Italy where stone is habitual.’ The reader is invited to fall in with a persona of Baedekered cosmopolitanism and sensual self-assurance. ‘We are prepared to enjoy stone in the South. For, as we come to the southern light of the Mediterranean, we enter regions of coherence and of settled forms.’ The prose nimbly sidesteps stock wordings and standard speech rhythms: ‘Stone sculpture apart, stone is more often conceived in the North as simply rock-like. And who will love the homogeneous marble sheets in the halls of Lyons’ Corner Houses? No hands will attempt to evoke from them a gradual life. For nowhere upon them is the human impress.’ These gestures of condescending curiosity towards the commonplace establish Stokes’s claim to be following Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and Pater’s essays on a new excursion into the Southern playground of English high-mindedness.

Slowly spiralling in on the Tempio, Stokes offers on the way bravura displays of scholarship regarding geology, ancient history and the career of Sigismondo. There are travel notes on dreary, sprawling modern Rimini – the ‘flat hotels and villas . . . cut off from the town by the dirty, jagged knife of the railway . . . What abruptness abounds is harsh and without colour.’ The splicing of the punchy and the abstract could almost be Rilke’s (compare Rilke on a canal in Bruges, in which, ‘by some ungraspable law’, the town’s ‘little streets, dawdling like convalescents . . . wake and grow clear in the transposed’); but this is prose argument, and the urge to categorise keeps overriding the urge to depict. Finally, however, a kind of poetry wins out. After extended passages of speculative foreplay running through antique astrology and Neoplatonism, the essay works up to a climax with a prolonged, fantastical rhapsody on the themes of Agostino’s iconography:

Here are the Twins, hand in hand: their young bodies glisten beneath the filmy draperies that guard their breasts like administering clouds that hasten to tend the moon, to hide her tired eyes some night when her laborious tears of cold silver shall not fall into gravity . . . The mountains rise and drop in the even, chorded light, a god in ecstasy on every peak as, breaking the leaf of tuneful silver, Venus comes reborn out of the further sea.

Yet, taking over the podium from Ruskin and Pater, Stones of Rimini is not only a belletrist performance but a lesson in aesthetic morality for Stokes’s English contemporaries. He offers them a guiding precept: ‘A figure carved in stone is fine carving when one feels that not the figure, but the stone through the medium of the figure, has come to life. Plastic’ – or, as Stokes terms it elsewhere, ‘modelling’ – ‘conception, on the other hand, is uppermost when the material with which, or from which, a figure has been made appears no more than as so much suitable stuff for this creation.’

The general drift of this distinction was hardly novel in art circles in 1934. During the previous thirty years, while the word ‘plastic’ was extending its reach from the art school lecture to the realm of household goods, there had been an avant-garde revulsion against all it implied in terms of wilfully imposed form. Rodin’s Kiss, the shape and surface textures of the master’s clay maquette mechanically enlarged and unfeelingly imposed by assistants on multiple blocks of marble: that, for progressive sentiment, was the nightmarish epitome of modern mass production values. The beneficent Kiss was Brancusi’s of 1908, two simple presences rawly but tenderly scored into a unitary limestone block. ‘Truth to materials’ had since become a watchword for sculptors like Epstein and the young Henry Moore.

Of carving and modelling, the twin poles of traditional sculpting, Stokes prefers the first because it can allow stone to ‘come to life’. What, then, is it for stone to live? What are the qualities it possesses, which fine carving is to reveal? Stokes’s incidental answers to the question are the most vivid parts of his book. Its geological chapter in particular is rich with sensuously inflected research on the diverse grains, lustres and frangibilities of rocks. Stones have differing senses of saturation: ‘The granite fountain seems impervious, the water glassy: the limestone or marble fountain, on the other hand, seems to become organic beneath the water, to be sluiced, refreshed . . . The water is the finery of a caressing mother.’ You can observe the contrast, Stokes suggests, by comparing the fountains in Kensington Gardens with those in Trafalgar Square.

But chiefly his argument hangs on two ways of describing stone. One builds on the phrase I have just quoted about limestone. Calcareous rocks – including marble, a recrystallised limestone – are ‘organic’ because they are ‘petrified organism’, made up of compacted sediments of marine life. Unlike igneous granite, limestone has therefore a native affinity with water. Stokes claims that the imagery of the Tempio panels expresses this relation perfectly – as if, when Agostino conjured his waves and dolphins from the marble, he was an intuitive 15th-century precursor of 19th-century geology. The other way of describing stone is much rehearsed in the earlier Quattro Cento. Stone’s self-sufficient existence, Stokes claims there, can be made aesthetically significant when it is carved in very low relief, as it was by Agostino. The effect that Stokes is keen to apprehend in both books is one where the mass of the stone is seen to face forward, and this is clearly declared in the rendering of the figures. With a taste seemingly guided by Gill and Epstein (not that he ever writes about them), he values a broad flat plane which has been incised with firm, frontally presented bodies or with devices that enhance its given texture. Thus stone may, in his metaphors, ‘disclose itself’ or ‘grow steadfastly’, emerging into ‘stone-blossom’. The ideal carver merely helps the stone to unfurl.

Taken as prompts to interest English readers in distant Italian reliefs, these marine and vegetable conceits have a poetic appeal. Taken as premises for an aesthetic manifesto, they seem rather flimsy. After all, as Stokes well knows, stone is not alive. Castigating the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Maiano for insensitivity, he writes: ‘Why is it that instead of drawing the life out of the stone, the carvings turn the stone to stone?’ The joke allows his key word for once to fit its commonplace denotation: inert weight, dumb, opaque resistance to human energies. In fact, it is against this obvious definition of stone that Stokes is concentrating his rhetorical efforts in these two books. That is why he invests so much energy in their erudition and into the wound up spring of their prose. It’s an exercise in making words heave weights into the air.

The tension has its roots in his intellectual education and, as Richard Read demonstrates in Art and Its Discontents, the books record a young writer gradually turning from the late-Victorian Hegelianism of his Oxford education towards the 20th-century aperçus of psychoanalysis. Stokes addresses his central concern one way, coming from philosophy: ‘The essence of stone is its power to symbolise objectivity.’ So how should he then tackle the objective? He effectively comes at a reply by way of Freud: we can approach it only through fantasy. The artist inescapably works under the sway of psychic compulsions, and the reactions that his work induces in the viewer inescapably belong to the same sphere of profound and hard-to-resolve neurosis.

Having plumped for this answer, Stokes resolves to embrace fantasy wholeheartedly. Let us accept and freely express the sexual momentum of our feelings about art, and let it interfuse poetically with our philosophical categories. Thus, hard on the heels of his precept about carving comes this foolish hostage to argumentative fortune: ‘Man, in his male aspect, is the cultivator or carver of woman who, in her female aspect, moulds her products as does the earth.’ Time and space are also worked into the scheme: visual art is required to transmute the first into the second, and whatever smacks of the temporal – rhythm and dynamism – is to be depreciated. As a consequence of the same resolve, Stokes refuses to be restrained in his mythologising by any lack of certainty as to the artist’s conscious intentions. Read quotes his notebook reflections on the absence of hard evidence about Agostino, Sigismondo and the mistress who allegedly inspired his rebuilding of the Rimini church: ‘The best that can be done is to reinterpret or re-create, equally vitally, with our own fantasies. For nothing can be done about Isotta historically: thank God, the Tempio situation does not tempt one to regard history as anything but bunk. Our fantasies alone cannot err.’

This anti-methodology indicates the strange position that Stones of Rimini occupies, straddling both sides of an anxiety about the place of the will in 20th-century aesthetics. On the one hand, Stokes, like so many others with anti-expressionist sensibilities from the era of Dada onwards, wants art to be fundamentally non-wilful: he wants it to reveal or to confront us with the substance of what already exists. His stone, his ‘essence of objectivity’, a static mass facing outwards towards us, is a cautious English cousin to the ‘readymade’ or the ‘specific object’ of more radical types of Modernism. On the other hand, the anything but lapidary prose of the book itself is an almost vengeful unleashing of the will on objects of contemplation. (The air of flagrant contrivance is yet more marked in The Quattro Cento, an angular scurry round the back corners of Italian art in search of a counter-Florentine account of the 15th century, its fitfully dazzling prose shot with anxious glances over the shoulder at ancestor authorities: a book for which the phrase ‘desperately clever’ could have been coined.) Referring for method to the great apostle of mass production – Ford, with his dismissal of history – Stokes confirms that he is indeed a player in the age of plastic.

Read’s analysis of how Stokes arrived at this position in the early 1930s is judicious and illuminating. For the most part, his book is not descriptive biography but intensive close reading: launching off with the question of how much Stokes’s 1920s friendship with Ezra Pound affected his view of the Tempio, and how much the poet’s homophobia caused the relationship to cool, it swiftly leads into the hinterlands of aesthetic scholarship and arcane critical feuding. The going can be hard: ‘Here was a topos to answer Davie’s, for Bann seemed to be reading Stokes’s texts through Pater’s borrowing of Winckelmann’s celebrated metaphor of classical sculpture as an oceanic surface.’ But at length you emerge with a subtle and coherent unravelling of the highly complex, wide-ranging arguments involved in Stokes’s early writing, which also ties them to themes in English intellectual culture and to his own life – which, up to Read’s cut-off point of 1934, seems fairly light on drama. He loses a brother in the Great War, which ends when he is 16; in the 1920s he sees much sporadic amatory action, mainly same-sex; after the Crash of 1929 he attempts unsuccessfully to give his fortune away to the Diaghilev ballet company. He is a thoroughly provided for, presentable youth enjoying, with twinges of anxiety, the liberty to choose his own role in life. The main shift Read records is a gradual social and spiritual decamping from the right-wing milieux of the Sitwells and of Pound, in favour of Hampstead progressivism – the company of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth and the psychoanalysis of Melanie Klein (who souped up his neuroses into a fabulously lurid case study: ‘Woman . . . appeared to him only as a kind of container for terrifying penises and dangerous excrements’).

Read is a fine intellectual historian, with an acute ear for allegiances and rivalries among the English cultural elite, but I find it hard to tell whether he actually likes the man he is writing about. Clearly, he respects Stokes for his acuity of language and his grasp of philosophical issues, but what personal details he gives about this elegant, reserved Sonnenkind tend to be faintly disparaging. He ends his book by doubting the genuineness of Stokes’s turn in the 1930s from his gay past towards ‘a newly constructed heterosexuality’ (there would be two marriages, the second to his first wife’s sister), which he combined in his writing with a ‘new reverence for the feminine’: might it not rather have been, he asks, a counter against homophobia ‘in continuing battles with male critics’? The image he conveys of the younger Stokes carries an aura of latent violence: the hawklike looks; the homage to the tyrant Sigismondo which buoys up his Tempio mythologising; the Wimbledon-standard tennis-playing which, Read presumes, ‘must have been aggressive’; the reported lovers – including Orwell’s future wife Sonia Brownell – who described him as a ‘sadist’.

Against this impression, Stokes’s conduct after his entry into psychoanalysis in 1930 seems admirable. He appears to have been at pains to acknowledge the contingency of his own position as a privileged, contemplative rentier. This scrupulous, gentlemanly political abstainer seems to have been overwhelmingly warm-hearted, judging by the reminiscences recorded by his broadly left-liberal acquaintance. But this was a circle largely gathered after he extended his attention to painting. Though Stokes already had a rapport with contemporary artists – in 1934 he had written essays on Hepworth, Nicholson and Moore – he gained a new audience from 1937 through Colour and Form. The book was read at the Euston Road, where he himself took up a life-room easel (‘we painters’, he is able to write, having first picked up brushes a year before), and, thanks to the returned admiration of William Coldstream, became the nearest thing to a theoretical underpinning for several generations of painters at Camberwell and the Slade. Carving v. modelling, Stokes’s critical antithesis, was now reapplied to two-dimensional art, to articulate a taste centred on Piero della Francesca and Cézanne and to clear a space of legitimacy for figurative painting between the internationally dominant creeds of Surrealism and abstraction. Rightly understood, according to the doctrine expounded here and in Stokes’s later, sometimes autobiographical writings, Freud’s new science impelled the artist not to spew out unresolved psychic disjecta but to work towards a reconciliation with otherness. Properly apprehended, therefore, a piece of the objective – it could be an apple or a model – might serve as an emblem of calm relatedness to the world, of the ‘steadiness’ that was perhaps Stokes’s most abiding value. In a long succession of imposingly polished essays, he gradually worked his way across the map of art, finding ways to allow value to artists previously disfavoured and coming to rest on a ruminative, psychoanalytically inflected wisdom about the ways that ‘art tells us of ourselves in terms of the external world.’

Something of Stokes’s manner and authorial ambition rubbed off on critical admirers who grew up reading him in the 1940s and 1950s – David Sylvester, Lawrence Gowing and above all Richard Wollheim. In later life his own understated work as a painter from observation (‘the poor man’s Bonnard’ – he got the crack in first) gathered in conviction, and the showing after his death in 1972 of his final, luminous still lifes seemed to cement his reputation. But twenty years later, when the Tate tried rehanging his work, it met with a derisive critical dismissal – ‘fuddled’, ‘mimsy’, ‘execrable’ etc.

Is there now, at a greater distance, any way to restore the cogency of his writing, with its antediluvian loftiness? Should the task even be attempted? Two of the academics introducing the double-volume paperback, Stephen Bann and David Carrier, have previously claimed Stokes as a radical risk-taker. They have pointed to the ways he crosses boundaries between philosophy, history, science and poetry and, indeed, in these early books, between sexual allegiances – which may be why they have settled on them as an attractively transgressive taster for a relaunch. Carrier has made Stokes out to be interesting precisely because ‘his fantasies are not relevant to the present institutions of the art world’ – a view Read endorses when he puts him forward as a ‘subversive emancipationist’.

This is pushing it. Read has written elsewhere of Stokes’s courteous animosity towards Gombrich in the 1950s and 1960s: the independent aesthete, with his elite prose, versus the institutional populariser. In that instance, my sympathies lie with the institution. Gombrich’s writing may have been profoundly eurocentric, but he wasn’t the one who wrote that ‘the Oriental, so far as that term implies a quality, is the natural robot among men’ or ‘I believe the Etruscans were Semitic or Hittite by race. Certainly one attributes to them . . . sadistic propensities in general, brutalities of a kind we have always associated with the East.’ In fact, the historical fantasies of this ‘subversive emancipationist’ are rooted deep in the kind of racism that Gombrich, with his attempts at a scientific methodology, was at pains to eradicate from art writing. The quotes above are not untypical of the reissued books. Later, Stokes would temper his language, but he never really revised an essentialist view of racial cultural identity that gains an added creepiness from his reluctance to acknowledge his own maternal Jewish ancestry.

The margin seems the best place for theorising that revolves around notions of ‘semitic’ cruelty and abstraction at war with ‘Mediterranean’ humanity and concreteness. Stokes makes that notion of ‘the Mediterranean’ work too hard: above all, to serve the baleful English myth that art is elsewhere. The North must defer to the South. The rainfall must have been heavier when he was growing up: every time he looks at his native London he sees clouds, puddles, a flickering discontinuity of light that makes him yearn for the steadiness of Italian evenings. Living in the age of global warming, I would be happy for this artistic-touristic cult, with its implicit denigration of the immediate, to die the death. Yet there is no simple way to dismiss it. To put oneself in the position of a pilgrim, to assert that the heart of one’s creed lies a thousand miles away in Urbino, is still to place oneself in a scheme of local identities and distinctive environments. It is a way of stating that the specific matters. If we give up on that, aren’t we giving away too much of what the business of making art is about? But if we do value locality, do we have to join Stokes in hypostatising it?

In fact, it’s as an exalted travel writer, remarkable for his alertness to the particular, that Bann chooses to commend Stokes in the foreword to the reissue. You can indeed take The Quattro Cento as an eccentric vade mecum to various corners of Italian art, as long as you are willing to engage with the singular boldness of its descriptive language. The book’s critical showpiece is an eight-page account of a heraldic lavabo that Stokes alleges was carved by Verrocchio. He offers a giddying switchback ride around the intricacies of its design: ‘The glissade of monster-rain is caught, and only condensation of the boars’ breath will damp the bath below where two dolphins rear up behind the fluted stem of the cup, panting.’ For admirers like Read, Stokes is a writer of exemplary ‘phenomenological precision’. He articulates in fine grain the interaction between his sensibilities and the object before him, and the result is a uniquely close verbal report on the experience of art.

Such a report, however, is not very easy to use as a functional supplement to your appreciation of the object, of the sort that art writing commonly claims to be: it gives you too much, it places itself and its author too insistently between your eyes and what they want to look at. Nor does it seriously pretend to give the work a historical introduction. (The carving is now thought not to be Verrocchio’s, anyway.) Is it then an end in itself, a work of art in its own right? Not quite: Stokes’s acts of attention do not deliver imaginative experiences that peel away from the objects themselves, in the way that Rilke’s New Poems do. They are both closer and further away from what prompted them. They cling to its particulars, yet are always being whipped along by insistent quasi-philosophical agendas, answering to the singular needs of the writer. I find I don’t trust them, which may simply be a way of saying I don’t share his obsessions. I can’t really believe in the reverences Stokes makes before the reliefs of Agostino, and I’m not even sure that he can. What the reader is left with is what Stokes seemingly started out with: awareness of their capacity to serve as vehicles for an exotic bisexual reverie.

Perhaps the main reason I find it hard to settle with this commandingly intelligent and self-aware writer is the status he gives to fantasy. From his Freudian viewpoint, fantasy is the individual’s projection of desires and fears on the ground – the stone, if you like – of otherness. And this, as far as I can see, is the mode in which he would claim we are bound to relate to every kind of object. But as a principle, this is bad for both the critic and the artist: it allows too much to the former and surrenders too much that is necessary to the latter. If all the responses that an art object prompts in the critic are of the same nature, all being fantasy, then criticism effectively forsakes public dialogue to become a repository for private singularities. Conversely, for a working artist the relation between the intent imagination and what it apprehends cannot be described as projection, a casting of fantasies on a fundamentally alien materiality, because anyone working at art knows that it is only out of such active apprehension that truth takes shape. What is trustworthy needs to be reached for with our imaginations: any lesser claim makes art into some kind of bad faith.

Yet I like Stokes’s paintings. Evoking bottles on tables, olive groves, female nudes, they refrain, in his own description, from all strenuousness. ‘Nothing monumental, no norms, no rigidity, no flourish, no acuteness, no pointedness, no drama.’ There is much to be said for that modesty.