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Janet Sayers. Art, Psychoanalysis and Adrian Stokes: A Biography. London: Karnac Books, 2015.

review by David Barnes





Adrian Stokes is a fascinating figure of the hinterlands of modernism. An art critic whose work owed much to Ruskin and Pater, he was also an enthusiastic admirer of experimental art and literature. A protégé of the Sitwells, he was as comfortable absorbing Picasso, Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau as he was investigating the architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Readers of this journal will know him for his friendship with Pound and interest in the Cantos. That was indeed a strikingly fruitful relationship, Stokes’s architectural criticism and Pound’s poetic architecture each inspiring the other. But Stokes is certainly worthy of longer and wider scrutiny, sitting as he did between traditions and disciplines. Stokes was an Oxford aesthete and a convinced modernist, a critic whose prose style could be almost Victorian at times, yet who nonetheless embraced the new – and transgressive – "science" of psychoanalysis.

     Janet Sayers’s new biography is particularly interested in Stokes’s relationship to the emergence of psychoanalytic practice; she is herself a practicing clinical psychologist, and Professor of Psychoanalytic Psychology at the University of Kent. Stokes famously underwent analysis with Melanie Klein, and Sayers places the experience firmly at the heart of her biography. In doing so, she builds on Richard Read’s 2002 study, Art and Its Discontents: The Early Life of Adrian Stokes. Read’s book took a more literary approach, applying insights from psychoanalytic thought to Stokes’s detailed and sensuous prose. Read saw Stokes’s art criticism as performing various aspects of his conflicted relationship to his own sexuality; Sayers provides fewer literary close-readings of this kind, but her biography is nonetheless brimming with fascinating detail. Stokes was initially going to be treated by Adrian Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s younger brother. That he ended up in treatment with Klein was accidental. The relationship was certainly central to Stokes’s developing mind – even though he often struggled with Klein’s interpretations, sometimes imagining her as a "child-eating witch," or a "black horse" in one of his dreams. Stokes’s anxieties, it seems, were in part the result of a difficult relationship with his parents and in part a legacy of his conflicted feelings over the death of his brother Philip in the First World War in 1917. Stokes was only 14: "that event has crippled my life," he would say later.

     When Sayers explores the relationships between Pound, Stokes and Olga Rudge, friendships that grew from Stokes’s visits to Rapallo and Venice, it is Rudge who emerges as the figure Stokes was closer too. Rudge appears to have had a rapport with the young writer that seems partly maternal and partly flirtatious. To Rudge, Stokes was the "deletissimo Adriano" and "awfully nice.” In 1927, Stokes wrote to her: "Perhaps you are a kindred spirit…At any rate I shall prize beyond words the chance sometime of getting to know you.” What Sayers does not treat in much detail are the causes of Pound’s falling out with Stokes. In 1929, Pound was writing of Stokes as one of "the only writers of the day" (along with himself, Joyce, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis). When Stokes published his major book of architectural criticism The Quattro Cento in 1932, Pound saw the book as the critical outworking of what his Malatesta Cantos did in verse. It was, wrote Pound, "a book for the 'whole life,' it is very much a book for 'stone alive.'” Yet when Stokes published his next book, The Stones of Rimini, two years later, Pound wrote a review that was at best lukewarm in its appraisal both of Stokes’s method and his vision. Stokes reacted with anger: "That is monstrous… I have offered an entirely new approach to visual art as a whole." Critics have suggested that something else was going on here – and specifically that Pound was uncomfortable with Stokes’s bisexuality and with his enthusiasm for psychoanalysis. At any rate, it would have been useful at this juncture to have been offered a little more explanation for the abrupt cooling of relations.

      On the whole, though, Sayers’s book is a very interesting (and readable) account of Stokes’s life and work. My only worry here was that there was so much that happened to Stokes that the book – perhaps of necessity – gallops along at a pace that sometimes seems too fast. Consider this: Stokes knew Pound and the Sitwells, was published by Eliot, seems to have inspired Auden’s poem "Musée des Beaux Arts," promoted the Ballets Russes, underwent psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein and knew Ernest Jones, was friends with Evelyn Waugh at Oxford, and took the proofs of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover to the publishers in Florence. That extraordinary litany of Stokes’s involvement in early twentieth-century artistic and intellectual culture doesn’t even touch on his chaotic personal life. Between lengthy analyses with Klein, Stokes had an affair with and later married his first wife’s sister Ann (who he liked to call "Andrew") and pressed for his young children to undergo psychoanalysis. Given the extraordinary life that Stokes led, and his centrality in any account of British art and literature in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, it might have benefitted Sayers’s book to take all this at a more leisurely pace. However, the book’s comprehensive approach is a tribute to the painstaking research that Sayers has undertaken here – including archival research in the Beinecke library at Yale, the New York Public Library and the Bodleian in Oxford. All in all, this is a very valuable addition to our understanding of the literary and artistic avant-gardes in Britain in the early twentieth-century, of the cultural history of psychoanalysis, and of the evolution of the figure of the art critic. Poundians will value the detail and context that Sayers brings to our understanding of the complex relationship between the American poet and the British critic.