Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Substance and Speech: Adrian Stokes and the Politics of Content and Form

This paper considers the figurative role of surfaces and their contents in the first chapter, ‘Jesi’, of Adrian Stokes’s The Quattro Cento. Revealing latent and politicised conflicts between formality and subject matter, it stresses the materiality of Stokes’s language.

In his 1932 book on Renaissance architecture, The Quattro Cento, Adrian Stokes wrote that ‘deep life has not come up, but escapes unfledged to hunger in the void. No concretion, but inhumanly to abstract is now the deadly showing’.1 This condemnation of abstraction is one of many moments in The Quattro Cento when Stokes is not talking about the Renaissance at all, nor merely about architecture; it intimates his dislike for the formalist art of his own time, specifically the ‘feckless hyenas’ of the Bloomsbury group, who championed pure form in scorn of content.2 Architectural historian Stephen Kite aptly writes that Stokes ‘ultimately believed that Bloomsbury’s Formalism had deracinated the understanding of art’; ‘inhumanly to abstract’ here is understood to mean to uproot art from representation, to draw it away from materiality, and to abandon these other aspects to ‘the void’.3 Stokes implies that, as opposed to the abstract, ‘deep life’ – suggestive of the unconscious, but also of that which is submerged within a landscape – is lost ‘concretion’, meaning both unformed embodiments and forgotten materiality, fated to remain ‘unfledged’ in a negative space. In other words, he feels that ‘matter’ has been repressed.

This paper will examine how, in accordance with the double estrangement that abstraction was performing in his time, in Stokes’s writing ‘matter’ in art denotes both its materiality and its subject matter. With this in mind, it is significant that he also implies that it is left ‘to hunger’; the suppression of matter, to Stokes, comes to stand for both a bodily and representational neglect. This paper intends, through a close reading of The Quattro Cento’s opening chapter, ‘Jesi’, and a comparison of the manuscript from which it was culled, to scrutinise the developing struggles between matter and form that Stokes saw in both the art and the critical writing of his time, and to show how he plays them out in his own work. In drawing out these figurative struggles this paper also hopes to establish how Stokes deliberately complicates the relationship of aesthetic and political representation. It will also suggest that this ‘unfledged’ subtext is the ‘deep life’ of Stokes’s writing, which he precisely asks us not to abstract from. It is for this reason that the manuscript of ‘Jesi’ is the paper’s focus; not only is this the most suggestively political chapter of The Quattro Cento but also the one in which Stokes’s attention to Italy’s architecture seems least literal. It appears under the doubly significant sub-heading The Italian Scene, implicating both an architectural and a political landscape, and with it a use of language that is split between a real and metaphorical ‘scene’.

On the first page of the published text, ‘Jesi’ reads:

Neither rain nor sunshine disturbs a corpse. But wait a minute! A siren yelling at the silk factories rattles every rickety shutter. Ruins are kindly; they have no shutters. They whisper through baked uncovered lips. These buildings abound with an evil life. They are not ruins. Beneath the dust on this tin plate are the arms of Savoy. Somewhere at the back of this Palazzo white-gloved, dirty-necked Carabinieri are crowding in a guard-room, while somewhere on the other side of the street, a hopeless nib guided by a dry-of-mouth scrapes on sheaves of papers. Every room was long ago white-washed. Nothing ghostly about such palaces and buildings. Their floors lie too long and straight and empty down the street, much of their dirt is recent, their smell is borrowed from the roadway. Even a monastery here lives from outside, never replete, without a glow.4

Proceeding from an initial sense that these buildings were corpse-like, their walls ‘long ago white-washed’, their smell ‘borrowed’, the latent life that Stokes sees in them, registered by the exclamation ‘but wait a minute!’, immediately instigates unease. These structures appear not only to be covering up a prior architectural aesthetic, but to be concealing their connection with civilisation. Stokes accuses them of an attempt to hide their signs of life. This act of aesthetic ‘covering over’ would later prove to be significant to his own writing practice, but, in advance of that, it imbues architectural structures with an internal discord, in which their facade is at odds with their contents. The bleached artificiality of the ‘evil’ southern Italian scene – one of which Jesi is part ‘by right of balcony’ – also enhances the niggling presence in this passage of stucco.5 A synthetic paste used predominantly to cover and decorate ‘undesirable’ brick and stone surfaces, stucco, a parasitic medium, is all surface: it is white, synthetic, and only fulfils its purpose as ornament through appropriating another material. Through it, Stokes seems to set up a dissonance between material that is substantial and material that is counterfeit, so that the surface of the town increasingly seems to be ‘playing’ at solidity.

This allusion to ‘white-washed’ pretence, seamlessly moving into concealed signs of the House of Savoy and the Carabinieri, forces its reader to feel uneasy about the relationship between substance and decorative form; the text submits to a sense of something having been policed and suppressed. The artificiality of the ornament, with its ‘delicate lines of stairways’, its floors ‘too long and straight and empty’, is frightening not only because it is constraining but, inherent to this, because it is too formal. In a c.1930–2 notebook, which contains notes towards The Quattro Cento, Stokes had written a strikingly similar paragraph entitled ‘Form in Poetry’, in which form is tyrannical and oppressive of its content:

Except as pointing to the essence of the decorative, Pure form can mean nothing. For Form is the contrivance by which it is possible to obtain art. The successful manipulation is Art. Obviously a contrivance is necessary, obviously the cunning of the contrivance is the chief joy of aesthetic pleasure. Contrivance, because ordinarily, when something is said, the rest of the world is left out and makes its discontent pretty plain. Truth can hardly been [sic] come by so baldly. The rest of the world must be pacified, must be shut in rather than shut out; for if shut out, as it is in abstraction, it howls all the more. Form is a mode of presentation by which that presented is made presentable and lastingly so and the yelps of the mob, the mob of other meanings, are drugged. Pure form, then, will be decoration, not a complete artistic expression, for nothing is said, a setting in which things can be said, things created because the rest of the world has been shut in, rather than shut out, so that there is a silence waiting the spoken word.6

The sense of sedation here, by which content is mortared by form, is repeated in the published text of ‘Jesi’, where Stokes writes that the noises of the town are ‘woven into a dream of basket firm somnolence’: ‘forbidden to grow venerable’, its structures ‘sleep’. Lending it a desire and capacity to anaesthetise and to ‘make things presentable’, Stokes endows form with the power to mould content into expressive shape, but also with the power to smother it, lending it an agenda towards uniformity, and formalisation: the act of bringing something into lawful or recognised shape. The final text of ‘Jesi’ is immediately transformed by this, as, having written that its buildings are ‘living from the outside’, Stokes now seems to imply not only that they are living by surface alone, but doing so because their ‘life’ is governed by something impressed from without. It is significant that its noises are also ‘woven’ into silence; ornamental form, the ‘abstract’ surface of art, is the ‘contrivance’ that manipulates its raw material into shape, but one that is therefore also able to silence it, to stop it from ‘rattling’ at its ‘rickety shutters’.

Moreover, meaning, made reticent by form, is significantly equated to a ‘mob’, a horde: a mass. Alluding to a compound density of multitudes, of ambiguous bulk, Stokes personifies meaning as a word denoting both the common people and an unruly crowd. It is reminiscent of the aesthetic he so loves of stone: ‘a concatenation’, ‘a fossiliferous amalgam compact with clay’, ‘the Gothic riot of figure and vegetation [become] stone-blossom’, ‘like a new stratum found packed with distinct columns’.7 Meaning is made stone-like in that it is the dense, simultaneously varied and homogenous raw material that is made tame by form. In addition to this, in having form drug its contents Stokes renders this stifled ‘meaning’ literally unconscious, not only making a sensory reference to the heaviness of being under anaesthetic, but implying that it has been put under. In other words, he postulates substance as something underground, weighed down by a density that makes it unable to enliven itself. Of the quattrocento palace he hopes will ‘wake the town’, he writes:

Just as one sprig of blossom in a slum can drive back the filth and ugliness, so this Quattro Cento palace at Jesi gives testimony of human will that can pierce mist and rain with blood afire, gives back joy in life that stirs in human blood, overcomes the sense of dreariness … Man endows nature with his eloquence. The mind is free, unrestrained by dark powers, rescued from the numbness that matter endures and suggests.8

Stokes’s desire for ‘stone-blossom’, in this light one that seems increasingly like a plea for emancipation, reads as an attempt to re-enliven sedated mass – from ‘the numbness that matter endures and suggests’ – in such a way that he implies it has previously been made out to be dead. Moreover, in suggesting that the blossoming of the stone is engendered by ‘giving back’ the ‘stir’ of ‘human blood’, Stokes also hints at the idiom ‘like drawing blood from a stone’, turning the heaviness and impenetrability of the material, often characterised as an unwillingness to give, into a suppression or a lack of representation. His language turns deficiency into deprivation. This considered, it is not surprising that, in contrast to the stuccoed surface, Stokes frequently champions stone bas relief as a rightful mode of expression; one in which material seems to rise up into solidified form, a mode which is saturated with the implications of a ‘relief’, an arrest, or, as Stokes frequently writes ‘reassurance’. The emblems ‘break through the shell of brick’; they seem to desire to escape and become manifest.9

Writing into the ‘Jesi’ manuscript the imagery of form’s struggles to silence content, and of content’s struggle to awaken and emerge, Stokes is attending to more than art here; there is an aesthetic conflict in his account of Jesi, but it is one which will not remain apolitical. The crux of this personified struggle is that Stokes politicises form and matter, not by any emblematic import impressed on them, but by revealing their relationship to be emblematic in itself. In implying that a struggle for representational power is inherent to form and matter’s interaction, Stokes renders human struggle internally necessary to artworks. As such, the palace, giving ‘testimony of human will’, also deliberately reveals what Jesi’s ‘white-washed’ buildings tried to conceal: their relationship to a social landscape, and their failed attempt to eradicate its traces.

This fight for expression is also played out within a temporal conflict in which Stokes sets up a dissonance between art that is either ‘epochless’ or ‘oppressive with date’. A section of the ‘Jesi’ manuscript that does not appear in the final text reads:

Now inasmuch as we often find that the emblematic significance of a work of Art tends to spoil our pleasure in that work, in as much as we [are] forced, in order to have a pure aesthetic emotion, to disregard the emblematic import, to see the object as Art, not as art of a particular period, a certain dilution is performed upon aesthetic experience. The result is, that although our immediate recognition of Art and the [?feeling] instantaneous pleasure are more frequent, because less easily muddled and distracted, yet aesthetic experience is never full … We turn a blind eye to a quality of Art without which it cannot exercise its greatest power nor bestow re-assurance upon the most [?hopeless] state.10

Although Stokes writes in his notes that it is debilitating for a work to be what he calls ‘officiously emblematic’ or dictating in its symbolism, he also makes clear here that to disregard ‘date’ or ‘emblematic import’ – to refuse representational content – is something unnatural that we are ‘forced’ to do.11 Much like the stucco, ‘aesthetic experience’ pretends its autonomy in order to detach itself from the current state of things, and in this very ignorance becomes complicit in an act of suppression.

Again, the neglect occurring here is not merely aesthetic. When art renounces its content, when aesthetic experience is not ‘full’, it also renounces its accountability to ‘relieve’ what Stokes, in his manuscript, most likely wrote as ‘a hopeless state’. It seems to abandon its humanity. The architecture’s metaphorical ignorance of its own sedated ‘content’ – also perhaps a nod to the unconscious on an individual level – is one that deliberately conflates the physical landscape with its social context. Stokes persistently refers to this ‘disregard’ for the representational as a collective will for ignorance – ‘we often find that the emblematic significance of a work of Art tends to spoil our pleasure’, ‘we turn a blind eye’. Jesi’s refusal to liberate its own substance becomes ours, and is complicit in a collective act of suppression which Stokes scathingly suggests is for the pursuit of our own ‘instantaneous pleasure’. Aspiring to be the supposedly timeless and immaterial aspect of the Jesi scene, the abstract immediacy of form tries to deny its specificity to the human experience to the point of being damagingly ahistorical and apolitical. The fact that Stokes gradually transforms this into a carefully concealed politicised force in itself is vital to his writing, because it reveals art’s attempt to abstract itself from human conflict as merely an act of pretence. In this passage, the suppression of substance, of ‘date’ and of representational content is itself shown to be a representational move, and despite its best attempt to distract from materiality, the supposedly non-representational gives itself away through a stuccoed aesthetic, a lack of material content that questions its sincerity. Stokes writes in the ‘Jesi’ manuscript that in order to facilitate our forgetting of the emblematic, ‘special attention is paid to the art of those cultures the emblems of which are not of paramount significance to us and so are too faint to divide us and themselves’.12 In other words, he paints a picture of art in denial, one that covers over human conflicts in the name of universality.

In light of this, the likeness drawn between ‘mass’ and ‘content’ in Stokes’s metaphors may not be accidental. Stokes’s plea for substantial art is significant because, asserting the importance of both physical ‘mass’ and ‘emblematic import’, it requires that it be not only material but weighty in what it represents. He makes a literal and metaphorical case for ‘matter’ in art, where matter denotes both material and the crux of its subject or situation: ‘a physical substance in general, as distinct from mind and spirit’, but also ‘the substance or content of a text as opposed to its style or form’.13 Implicit in ‘Jesi’, and made clearer in the manuscripts from which it was developed, is Stokes’s feeling that art that attempts to plaster over its attachment to human conflict – that which might betray it as ‘art of a particular period’, or that which might ‘divide us’ – is not ‘full’. It is implied that it is somehow devoid of substance. This is a loaded equivalence, because it not only comments on the level of the art’s ‘grounding’ in reality, but suggests that the art’s content, or lack of content, is tied to a physical contentedness. Stokes sees Jesi’s white-washed structures as insubstantial because, ‘without recess they are living from the outside, never replete’; in other words, they are hungry. These buildings are not merely too formal, they are unsatisfied, and the lack of substance comes to implicate their ‘discontent’. Ultimately, Stokes alludes to two aesthetics of poverty that are intrinsically linked; one a poverty of meaning and historical significance, and one a physical poverty, a material and bodily lack.

This ‘hunger’, resulting from a segregation of form and content, and pushing both into a kind of redundancy, is something that figures much earlier on in Stokes’s writing, in the manuscripts for his 1926 book Sunrise in the West. His suggestion that Jesi’s buildings, unlike ruins, have shutters over their mouths, recalls a note from these manuscripts entitled ‘Prose’, in which he writes of mind and matter ‘one having the power to swallow the other, so far from matter having the power to swallow mind, matter cannot be conceived without its counterpart’.14 The hungry mouths and empty dwellings in the imagery of the published ‘Jesi’ text then, abstracted from their content, also imply a split in which substance is sustenance, subject to being swallowed by form, and in which form alone is merely an open mouth, a hollow receptacle. Meanwhile, this dichotomy means that matter, as Stokes writes in a side note, ‘has no mouth to swallow’.15 Reminiscent of the sedated silence that Stokes says content is made to ‘endure’ in the ‘Jesi’ manuscript, he again sees the fullness of matter pushed by this absolutism to such an extent that it turns into congestion, inferring a substance so buried under ‘anaesthetic’ that it cannot find an orifice.

This dissonance between a mouthless matter and an all-swallowing form, manifesting itself as a split between the mouth and its contents, does not only present itself as a paradigm of ingestion, it also instigates a discrepancy in the respective abilities of form and content to speak. A result of Jesi’s surface being ‘all mouth’ is that Stokes writes of its structures as ‘garrulous sores’, meaning an incessant but empty chatter.16 Scathingly, Stokes pushes this segregation of sedated, somnolent mass and the free but empty chatter of surface ornament to the point at which no conflict is possible, at which nothing can be expressed. It is only with the acknowledgement of the emblematic engagement of substance and form with the appearance of the quattrocento palace that something is able, finally, to be said. The palace that embodies stone-blossom in this chapter, in Stokes’s words, ‘gives testimonyand ‘endows nature with [man’s] eloquence’; it says something because it allows its material to rise up into expressive form.17

Imbuing materials with, not only speech, but degrees of ease, clarity, and weight of expression is an important nuance of Stokes’s writing, because it is where I feel that he begins to implicate the conflicts in his own practice. In accounting for the profundity of heavy or substance-laden expression, ‘Jesi’, in both published and manuscript form, justifies its own dense and metaphorical language by associating a turn to pure form – and, indeed, meaningless formality of expression – with a weightless insincerity. Stokes significantly states in ‘Jesi’’s manuscript that

a historian of Art, too, must approach his subject from the emblematic side, for here is the key to understanding how it is that an unsuitable convention is persisted with which makes the creation of art impossible, or, in other words, how it is that those who fail to attend to the spirit of the age and that in no superficial manner, one might witness our academicians, cannot, however clever their tecnique [sic] produce a work of art.18

He suggests here that the very conventions of art historical writing are responsible for the impossibility of art. It would seem that Stokes feels that art theory, through repudiating the emblematic, through abstracting mere concepts from a sensory body, disposes of the very aspect that makes aesthetic experience. It is not unreasonable to assume in light of the above quote, and his earlier footnote to his 1930 essay Pisanello, which ironically suggests that academics should limit themselves to ‘hopelessly unfinished work, lest the canvas be overladen with polite nonsense’,19 that Stokes’s ‘hopeless nib guided by a dry-of-mouth, scraping on sheaves of paper’, is a mark of emptiness that also pertains to a meaningless and overly formalised academic practice. His rebellion against this is manifested, in the text, by the way that his language is not ‘literal’, the way that his writing on architecture is not only an art historical discourse but socially, politically, and viscerally ‘representational’; his theory is figurative. For this reason Stokes’s allusions to such states as sedation, garrulousness and repletion are crucial, because they are not only conceptual but physical references that cannot separate their meaning from bodily states. Sedation alludes not only to the idea of being suppressed or ‘put under’ but also the sensation of heaviness and the feeling that you are speaking through density. Emerging from corporeality, like the palace whose windows are ‘given birth’ to by ‘the decrepit brick’, the text’s points of understanding are ones that are lodged in its body – its theory emerges from and attends to physical conditions.20

In writing so viscerally, Stokes vouches for what is not able to be abstracted into mere concept and is therefore hard to say, perhaps defending the thick inhibiting texture, the ‘suet’, as Eliot once said, of his prose.21 Suet may have been the fitting word, since it is also a dense foodstuff associated with the poor, a waste product of more easily digestible meat. It is apt because not only does Stokes force us to process the heavily associative and representational aspects of aesthetics that were designated, by formalism, as the ‘leftovers’ of art in his time, but he also metaphorises its subjugation as a form of social oppression and neglect. As he writes later in The Quattro Cento, ‘the body is subordinated to form’.22

This refusal to abandon sensuous feeling in favour of abstract or theoretical universality is furthered by the fact that Stokes’s metaphors do not resolve into any objective configuration. There are moments of ambiguity in which the depravity in the published ‘Jesi’ text metamorphoses from being one of authoritarian forces to implicating the masses; the white-wash that Stokes associates with Savoy bears a noticeable resemblance to what later becomes the ‘lazar whiteness’ of the stucco, taken possession of by the declassed proletariat of Naples. Hungry mouths become just as depraved as those that swallow and inhibit.23 Significantly, however, Stokes refuses to plaster over what might be, during these years, his own sense of disorder. The text precisely conspires to give its reader the feeling of a concealed struggle, and indeed the sense of something ‘unfledged’ attempting to take on a form, to rise out of a mass of conflicting visceral impressions. In a time when Stokes is thought to have been sympathetic to the fascist movement, these concerns with conflict, deceptive surfaces and inhibited speech, disclose an uncertainty and a desire not to present an artificial united front – a telling contradiction to what fascism would later become – that is a statement in itself. By allowing this element of suet to stand, Stokes acknowledges ‘the emblematic nature of art which we have too forcibly separated from its universal quality’, ‘two aspects of art [which] often appear to be in conflict … We have said that art generalises, says something or many things in terms of another. But in most cases these things cannot be said at all except in such a form of synthesis’.24 In essence, despite art’s purpose being to express subjectivity in an objective form, Stokes refuses to allow the ‘universal’ aspect of art ‘inhumanly to abstract’ itself from its rootedness in its physical landscape, its time, and its subject matter.

Seen through the layers of the ‘Jesi’ manuscripts and its final form, it seems that Stokes is not only aware of the struggle between form and content, but is working through it himself, through the struggle between the formalities of his practice and the tangibility of its objects, and between politics and aesthetics. Accidentally or not, in allowing this level of aesthetic ambiguity to endure in his theory, he does not allow his theories to abstract themselves from reality and neglect to represent the texture of their time.

See also