Adrian and Marianne Stokes’ artistic legacy has finally been marked, says Terry Grimley.
When the painters Adrian Stokes and Marianne Preindlsberger met in Pont-Aven in Brittany in the early 1880s, they embarked not only on a marriage but a shared artistic career which would last 40 years.
As early as 1900 they shared an exhibition at the Fine Art Society in London, but there has never been a retrospective exhibition which placed their work side by side – until now.
Utmost Fidelity: The Painting Lives of Marianne and Adrian Stokes has been organised by Wolverhampton Art Gallery with independent curator Magdalen Evans, the artists’ great niece.
It’s a wonderful exhibition which should not be missed. With many of the exhibits on loan from private collections, it has a trailblazing feeling.
Mr and Mrs Stokes seem to have had no direct connection with the West Midlands, but Wolverhampton has a painting by Marianne in its collection. It is a Madonna and Child painted in a strongly decorative idiom which seems out of context with its date (1907-8), and it achieved unexpected celebrity when it was selected by the Post Office for a Christmas stamp.
The exhibition shows Marianne to be a much more complex, and more interesting, artist than this somewhat kitsch image might suggest.
Quite apart from the intrinsic merits of the 80 or so paintings, in many cases considerable, the exhibition gives a fascinatingly fresh perspective on the history of art between the 1880s and the 20s.
Having met at Pont-Aven the artists moved to St Ives and worked at Skagen, Denmark, connecting three of the best known artists’ colonies at the end of the 19th century. Unencumbered by children and liberated by private incomes, they travelled Europe at will, working not only in Marianne’s native Austria (where they became trapped, with the American society portrait painter John Singer Sargent, by the outbreak of war in 1914) but in Holland, Hungary and Slovakia. Although well-known and successful in their lifetimes (Adrian was born in 1854 and died in 1935, Marianne was born a year later and died in 1927), posterity has been less kind.
It’s not difficult to see why. The fact that they met in Pont-Aven, home to one of Europe’s most renowned, forward-looking colonies of artists, shows they were progressively minded. But it was the cautious Jules Bastien-Lepage, rather than the more radical style of the artist now most strongly associated with the town, Gauguin, which provided the inspiration for Marianne’s early figure compositions.
The work of neither fits into the modernist narrative which has dominated the history of the period since the mid-20th century. Their reputations can only benefit in an era more open not only to artists who took a less radical path but also to geographical schools, such as those of the Nordic countries, which were previously ignored as marginal.
Geography is an important issue with these artists. Adrian, who wrote a book on landscape painting, worked extensively in locations like the Tyrol which makes him difficult to place in a history of British landscape.
It also has to be mentioned there is inevitable confusion between this Adrian Stokes and the younger painter and writer on art of the same name (1902-72), who also married a fellow artist (Margaret Mellis) and moved to St Ives.
As a couple Adrian and Marianne complemented each other, Marianne was essentially a figure painter and Adrian a landscape painter. Marianne’s work was more stylistically wide-ranging, but also more uneven.
Born in Graz, she moved to Paris to study and was already an award-winner when she arrived in Pont-Aven. The earliest work by her in the exhibition, a small study of a Breton girl, shows her to be an accomplished disciple of Bastien-Lepage, whose open-air realism, lit by an even, overcast light, was all the rage across Europe at this time.
A larger painting of a boy polishing a glass by lamplight shows her to be standing shoulder to shoulder at the end of the 1880s with Newlyn School artists like Stanhope Forbes.
But a remarkable painting of 1893, The Passing Train, is something different. The train, represented by its drifting smoke, prompted a girl to look up from her work in the fields. With its setting sun and the powerful red keynote of the girl’s cape (an element repeated in many of Marianne’s paintings of quite different subjects) this image seems to link to turn-of-the century Symbolism.
Adrian’s landscapes undergo a parallel transition. The earliest, from the early 1880s, are rooted in Constable and the Barbizon School, chunkily painted in earthy greens and browns.
But when he comes to paint his Alpine landscapes at the turn of the century the colours are high-toned and resonant, the leaves of cherry trees bright auburn or those of silver birches yellow against blue mountains. These landscapes don’t look like Gauguin’s, but the artifice of colour recalls him and his Symbolist followers.
In the large painting Where Chavez Flew, the Simplon Pass (1911) Adrian approaches abstraction while commemorating young Peruvian pilot George Chavez’s pioneering flight across the Alps, which ended in success and tragedy as he suffered a fatal crash within a few feet of landing.
Later paintings find him returning closer to home. There is a poster of Warwick Castle, one of a series commissioned from leading artists by the London, Midland & Scottish Railway in 1923, the year of its formation.
A series of paintings charts the couple’s close working relationship on their travels. There is a charming juxtaposition of two small Dutch pictures, one by each of them, from 1899-1900. While Adrian painted little townscapes in Hungary and Slovakia, Marianne’s studies of young women in traditional dress have a clear documentary intent, recalling the paintings of rural communities in Piedmont by Estella Canziani in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
* At Wolverhampton Art Gallery until March 28 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; admission free). Then touring to Southport (Adrian Stokes’ birthplace), Harrogate and Truro.