The Quattro Cento, and Stones of Rimini
University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. 536 pp.; 112 b/w ills. $38.00
Art and Its Discontents: The Early Life of Adrian Stokes
Hants, UK: Ashgate, 2002. 260 pp.; 30 b/w ills. [pounds sterling]45.00
Exploring one of the paths not taken in the history of art can be most seductive. Adrian Stokes--British critic, art historian, painter, ballet aficionado, psychoanalytic soothsayer--has beckoned us his way for nearly three-quarters of a century. Granted, a few of the most formidable scholars at the end of the twentieth century--Richard Wollheim, Stephen Bann, and David Carrier--have signaled their colleagues in Stokes's direction, but for the most part art historians have not heeded the call. Perhaps matters will change now that a hefty new edition from Pennsylvania State University Press brings together Stokes's The Quattro Cento of 1932 and his Stones of Rimini of 1934, prefaced with thoughtful introductions by Bann, Carrier, and Stephen Kite. In addition, an anthology, edited by Bann, of interpretative essays about Stokes by a number of well-known scholars is in the works. And if the reader becomes genuinely converted to this unusual critic's writings, he or she (if strong of heart) might just dare to dip into Richard Read's Art and Its Discontents: The Early Life of Adrian Stokes of 2002.
What makes Stokes's early position distinctive in his two lengthy essays on architectural sculpture in the early Italian Renaissance is his fierce and poetic commitment to the material medium itself, specifically, limestone--not what stands behind the work of art (social realities, iconographic programs, religious sentiments, and so on), and certainly not what stands before it (spectators, interpretations, reception theory, and so on), but the actual ancient stone itself, even before it comes to life in the carver's hands:
... in all stonework typically Mediterranean there is somewhere expressed the identification or mutual consummation of limestone and water, there is expressed water made solid, permanent, glowing instead of glassy, set in space and brightened by the dripping rains.... then we may understand how mere marble men and women could be works of art and could be deities, why the waters of springs were gathered deep and clear in marble shrines.... the external thing, the objective, concrete, thing in its form of the glowing limestone, became for Mediterranean man the symbol of realized expression. Time or succession appeared to be summed in stone form as homogeneous concrete matter. (Stones of Rimini, p. 87) So often in the history of art its practitioners pass through the medium as though it had no felt substance, as though it were there merely to support the stories or to lend corporeal embodiment to the artist's skill. The looking glass through which Alice in Wonderland as art historian passes from one side to the other remains invisible in so much aesthetic writing, from Immanuel Kant onward. Stokes refuses to let it be so. "Limestone ... is the link between the organic and inorganic worlds.... [Its] very substance suggests concreted time ... the spectacular translation of time into space [is] implicit in Quattro Cento limestone architecture" (ibid., pp. 40-41). To cause "to bloom in [the] Quattro Cento manner" is "to be encrusted with the life of both sea and shore, with saltiness and dry fertility" (The Quattro Cento, p. 33). The beauty of...