The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
Art Books

The Outwardness of Art: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes

A new collection edited by Thomas Evans focuses on Stokes's formative writing on outwardness and early essays and unpublished writings on ballet from the 1930s.

It’s difficult to categorize Adrian Stokes’s writing—he is frequently referred to as an art critic, but that belies the breadth of the British writer’s oeuvre. While Stokes was largely interested in art, and sculpture in particular, his essays touch on architecture, ballet, pop culture, and travel. Long before “visual culture” would come to define a broad range of cultural expression, Stokes, who died in 1972, reached across that divide. This came across in his aesthetic of “outwardness,” art that opens itself to the viewer, revealing its fullness and reflecting the otherness of its surroundings. Stokes began to explore outwardness as it related to sculpture, but he would later discuss this notion in ballet—which he said occupied a “uniform corporeal outwardness”—and as a phenomenological tool in describing architecture and place. “All art is the conversion of inner states into outward objective form,” Stokes remarked in To-night the Ballet (1934). His skill as an observer of his environment, drawn from this fascination with outwardness, as well as his mastery of the essay form, makes Stokes’s writing especially enjoyable.

Born in London in 1902, Stokes straddled two distinct eras in art writing. His earlier writing followed in the footsteps of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, while his later works were steeped in the then-pioneering field of psychoanalysis. Early works like The Quattro Cento (1932), wherein he first formulated his theory of outwardness, were shaped by the writer’s friendship with Ezra Pound. The two had met on the tennis court and quickly bonded over a shared interest in the Tempio Malatestiano, whose bellicose commissioner—the feudal ruler Sigismondo Malatesta—was featured in several of Pound’s cantos. However, that relationship was short-lived—Stokes, who was both gay and Jewish, was disturbed by Pound’s embrace of fascism and distanced himself from the author. Luckily, he found a supporter in T. S. Elliot, who became his longtime publisher at Faber & Faber. It was Elliot who championed Stokes’s writing and diligently published all of his early works.

These earlier essays, pulled from Stokes’s books published with Faber & Faber between 1932 and 1951, form the bulk of The Outwardness of Art: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes, a new collection edited by Thomas Evans. Unlike Richard Wollheim’s popular 1972 collection, which focused exclusively on Stokes’s earlier works and grouped them by theme, Evans takes a chronological approach and includes later works published after he and Faber & Faber parted ways in 1952, as well as early essay collections and unpublished writings on ballet from the 1920s. But the focus remains on Stokes’s formative writing on outwardness and devotes a substantial portion of the collection to excerpts from these earlier writings.

In Stones of Rimini (1934) Stokes developed the now-famous distinction between carving and modelling in sculpture, building his aesthetics of outwardness. Like The Quattro Cento, the essays in Stones of Rimini focus on Agostino di Duccio’s sculptures in the Tempio Malatestiano. Stokes defines carving as an act of cutting down in which the stone itself, as opposed to the carved figure, comes to life. “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,” he writes in “Carving, Modelling and Agostino,” one of the selections from Stones of Rimini. Modelling, on the other hand, is a process of building up, a “plastic conception” wherein the material is formed around the subject. While Stokes sees these values most clearly in sculpture, the dialectical relationship between plastic and stone in his writing forms a broader typology for classifying visual objects.

In an essay on the ballet La Boutique Fantasque in Russian Ballets (1935), Stokes explores plastic and stone values in relation to dancers’ bodies. For Stokes, ballet is the epitome of outwardness—the “turned out” body was a means by which a dancer “continually shows as much of himself as possible to the spectator.” In La Boutique Fantasque, dancers perform as wooden dolls, their malleable forms bestowing “plastic value upon movement.” But when dancers posing as children enter the stage, their actions become forceful, “no less directed than are the carver’s blows upon his stone.” What makes these essays so enjoyable is the way in which Stokes moves the reader along, interweaving evocative descriptions and nuanced arguments.

In the 1930s, Stokes began psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein, a controversial figure whose work was crucial in the development of object relations theory. While inklings of psychoanalytic theory show themselves in Stokes’s early works, the selections from the 1950s onward are saturated with Kleinian theory. Indeed, as Evans notes in his introduction, this approach could veer toward the reductive, as was the case in Michelangelo (1952), which Faber & Faber declined to publish on the grounds that it was overly psychoanalytic. That criticism is not without merit—the selections from Stokes’s Klein-influenced work, such as “The Ego-Figure” (from Greek Culture and the Ego (1958)) and the previously unpublished 1962 essay “On Resignation” are bogged down in psychoanalytic lingo and lack the prosaic observations that define his other writing.

In any case, Stokes’s pioneering approach to psychoanalysis led to a younger generation discovering his work, both in Britain and the US. In the States, his most passionate supporters included Meyer Schapiro and John Ashbery, as well as painters like Philip Guston and Barnett Newman. Regardless of criticisms leveled against him, the popularity of Stokes’s psychoanalytic writing among mid-century thinkers preserved a broader interest in his work. Today, nearly four decades after Stokes’s death, the selections in The Outwardness of Art still retain their relevance. Evans’s inclusion of Stokes’s ballet writings, as well as a fascinating essay on Mickey Mouse, reveal the writer’s prescient genre-bending approach. Likewise, Stokes’s demand that art expose itself to the viewer and that the viewer, in turn, interrogate their own interest is a timeless testament to the subjectivity of art writing.


Jonah Goldman Kay

Jonah Goldman Kay is a writer and editor based in New Orleans. His writing has appeared in Artforum, the Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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