Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2009
Stephen Kite Adrian Stokes: An Architectonic Eye Oxford: Legenda, 2008. 235 pp. Cloth $89.50 (9781905981892)

London-born in 1902, Adrian Stokes spent some years during the 1920s in Italy looking at early Renaissance art and, soon enough, writing about it. Like many aesthetes, he found himself by moving south. After some unfocused essays and books, which he did not republish, he then created two masterpieces: Quattro Cento (1932), a study of fifteenth-century sculpture, and Stones of Rimini (1934), a very elaborate analysis of the Tempio Malatestiana in Rimini. His early life must have been full of tensions, for although he was a close friend of Ezra Pound, Stokes had a Jewish mother and was a lover of men. In the 1930s, however, he returned to his native city, was analyzed by Melanie Klein, and then married and had children. These sessions with Klein led to the introduction of psychoanalytic vocabulary into his writing.

Stokes also wrote magnificently about modernism and its urban environment. Thanks to an independent income, he never had to teach or do commercial writing. His autobiographies, Inside Out (1947) and Smooth and Rough (1951), which tell magnificently the story of how moving to Italy changed his life entirely, deserve comparison with Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900. An invocation of the places he cared about in England and Italy provided, so Stokes believed, the best way to reveal himself. Following his mostly negligible early writings, it was his close attention to Renaissance sculpture that enabled him to find himself as a writer and also, his autobiographies suggest, as a person. A legendary figure in the English art world, championed by his great friend the philosopher Richard Wollheim, Stokes remains, as yet, too little known in America. He died in 1972. His paintings, which are as unclichéd as his writings, have been exhibited posthumously in London and New York.

Stokes’s central early concern was the relationship of painting and sculpture to architecture. Hence Stephen Kite’s apt title, An Architectonic Eye. Stokes thought that Renaissance sculpture was great because of its essential roots in contemporary architecture. This marvelous book, which is focused on Stokes’s writings on the Renaissance, provides a full and highly original account of the writer’s development. Clearly written and well illustrated, it tells the story accurately. Supplementing Stokes’s account of his London childhood with a map, Kite very subtly sets Inside Out in context. He describes Stokes’s Oxford education, and very usefully traces his early influences. We learn what he gained from contemporaries, such as Josef Strzygowski, a far-ranging scholar whose unruly political influence Stokes ultimately resisted; we are given a clear perspective on why the Tempio inspired commentary by Pound (with whom Stokes ultimately had a falling out), who thought it a proto-fascist monument; and we get an accurate description of Stokes’s antagonistic relationship with Bloomsbury. Thanks to helpful black-and-white illustrations, along with Kite’s reading in the archives, we are able to follow in detail Stokes’s development. The book offers a clear account of his early championing of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and Ben Nicholson. It tells effectively how, by turning away from the art of Florence to the Adriatic, Stokes sought to reorient Renaissance studies. It links his account of Piero della Francesca to the pioneering studies of the great Roberto Longhi, who admired Stokes. And it has a subtle exposition of Stokes’s theorizing, explaining why for him architecture was the primary art.

A full account of Stokes’s life and writing would need to place him in historical context. When he was young, life in Italy was very cheap. Scholars at the time were only starting to focus on the out-of-the-way architecture he wrote about. In the 1930s, men with a Jewish parent did not necessarily think themselves Jewish. Stokes certainly did not. Once the political environment changed, the Tempio ceased to be an icon; nowadays only specialists study it. Stokes’s writings use psychoanalysis in a highly personal way, making a link between his claim that in the greatest Renaissance sculpture the carved stone reveals its geology, and Klein’s view that adult health requires recognition of the power of infantile aggression. His sweeping contrast between carving art, which appears timeless because it reveals the inner life of the stone, and modeling, which displays tensions, has not been taken up by art historians. Nor has his particular psychoanalytic perspective attracted followers. And yet, his books remain of lasting interest. Many people who are dissatisfied with most academic prose find Stokes’s frank evocation of fantasy liberating. As Kite notes, Stokes’s view of the potentially nurturing role of architecture provides a suggestive addition, or correction, to present-day urban studies.

When Stokes studied at Oxford, art history, already established in Germany, was only starting to become a subject in English universities. His near-contemporary Kenneth Clark, whose published response to Stokes’s early writings was ambivalent, became a professional art historian; Stokes did not, and remained always outside that institutional world. Recently Stokes’s revealing exchange of letters with Ernst Gombrich has been published. However eccentric some of his claims may now seem, Gombrich, a member of the academic establishment, had pupils and commentators. Stokes did not, and so his claims are harder to place. You can read a great deal about the Tempio without finding more than a mention in passing of Stones of Rimini. Stokes was heir to the tradition of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, gifted amateurs whose claims seem often highly subjective to modern art historians. Like them, Stokes wrote about Renaissance art as if he were an art critic, without full regard for the concerns of art historians. Recent commentary on Ruskin and Pater tends to focus on their writing as literature, without asking whether historians can still find it valuable. Kite, similarly, tells much about Stokes’s sources, but says too little about why his prose, almost uniquely fascinating, is unlike anyone else’s. Nor do the important 1930s books on ballet come into the story. The Russian ballet, Stokes believed, was the modernist art form that naturally develops the concerns of Renaissance humanism. So far as I know, scholars have not taken up this claim.

What, exactly, is the relationship of Stokes with academic art history? To what extent do his writings deserve attention from scholars who want to understand the quattrocento art, which he describes? These questions suggest others. Should we read Stokes as a great poetic writer, fascinating for what he reveals about a now-distant English culture? Or, rather, may we also find in his books some hints about how to practice interpretation of visual art? Is his notion of carving, which reveals the visual culture of early Moore and Hepworth, still of general interest? That Kite raises more questions than he fully answers is one reason why his book is admirable. All future readers of Stokes will be indebted to Kite’s tactful and comprehensive commentary.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar