Love, Art, and Psychoanalysis: Janet Sayers explores ‘at-one-ment’ in the work of Adrian Stokes

The Interpretation of the Other: An Analysis of Love


‘Oh, yes, I’ve been in love before alright but though violently not to a hundredth this degree. For I do not believe that one can more than once lose one’s identity … If I am cut off from you … there is nothing of me surviving,’ the art critic, Adrian Stokes, told his beloved sister-in-law, Ann Mellis.


Stokes’s beloved Ann

‘I am more than usually dear to myself: ever since I have had you in my heart … I am like a man with a magic power,’ Stokes went on to quote from a love poem by Michelangelo as illustration of the mania and enlarged self-importance involved in being in love. Freud had described mania as involving oneness of the ego with the superego to which the psychoanalyst, Sandor Rado added that mania revives the breast-feeding infant’s illusory oneness with the mother’s body. Stokes in turn allied both states of mind with aesthetic experience which the artist and psychoanalyst, Marion Milner, described as involving oneness with a work of art.

Stokes himself was also frightened of the harm his own mania and control of others in imagining himself as one with them could do to them. ‘How blessed that things do not move with our thoughts. The glass on the table is still while I think, imagine, fear and love. A little contemplation of its outwardness, a little scientific or aesthetic appraisal, stabilizes the world,’ he said of the reassuring separateness of everyday objects from himself, and the harm he might otherwise do them.


A Rembrandt self-portrait in London’s National Gallery

He wrote in similar vein about Rembrandt’s portraits in London’s National Gallery. ‘Here, on the walls, faces come softly but vividly from dark backgrounds, faces and hands that “realize” the sitters,’ Stokes said of these portraits. Drawing, texture, disposition, echoing toppling shape, seem to be a rich fructification of character rather than the physical representatives. Such an effect depends on eliciting from us muscular response to the drawing and an increase of the usual correlating activities of vision. We feel this apprehension of inner and outer actuality in prior terms of our muscular responses, let us say, to be benign.

It is benign, said Stokes, because, as well as evoking oneness with them, these portraits, in being separate and ‘independent’, are safely ‘out of harm’s way’.

His erstwhile psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, rejected an earlier version of his paper in which Rembrandt’s portraits figure. ‘I find it very difficult to follow because it is not enough clearly expressed,’ she explained. ‘May I add – and please don’t take this criticism too much to heart, for it is not meant like that – that while in your writings some parts are of great beauty others are not clearly enough expressed. I have heard this criticism expressed by people who much appreciated your books and seemed to me to belong to the class of “good” readers,’ she continued, many months before she accepted a revised version of this paper, ‘Form in art’, for inclusion in a book, New Directions in Psycho-Analysis, which she helped edit.

‘I find in the clouds to-day the splendid shapes of T’ang figures,’ this paper begins. ‘Anyone who, looking at clouds, is increasingly arrested by their shape, tone, disposition, or the spaces between them, by every detail and its inter-relation, experiences an aesthetic sensation. In asserting this,’ Stokes generalized in presuming, as he put it, ‘that conscious phantasy … does not merely use the condition of the clouds as a point of departure but’ is also limited by ‘the very particular visual and tactile terms of these cloudy forms’.

Oneness of imagination with the clouds is only possible, he indicated, by virtue of the physical aspects of their otherness evoking an imagined response to them. Something similar is evoked by the beloved in the lover. Indeed, Stokes maintained, because ‘it combines the sense of fusion’ or oneness with ‘the sense of object-otherness’ art is ‘an emblem of the state of being in love’.

Blind_of_Sight_II_2001-by-Judith Wright

oneness, otherness

Not only that. Art and love, he claimed, revive an infantile imago of oneness with the mother’s body together with recognition of her separate otherness. In presenting this claim in January 1954 he helped launch the Imago Group of artists, philosophers, and psychoanalysts which, after first meeting on 8 February that year, continued to meet regularly for nearly two decades to discuss non-clinical applications of psychoanalysis, not least to art.

Members of the Imago Group included Marion Milner, the artist and art education lecturer, Anton Ehrenzweig, and the psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, whom Stokes might well have influenced with his writing about impressionist paintings by Monet. ‘Some of his best paintings are of a frangible, crumbling world, icefloes on the Seine and the thaws,’ Stokes’s said of Monet’s paintings.

We have the same feeling from his poppyfields or from the series of paintings in the early morning on the Seine … or from many snow paintings. The subject-matter is broken down, reconstituted in a configuration of manifest, fragmented brush-strokes. Also fog, mist, lend themselves to the same dissolution that can provide the means of a uniform rebuilding of uninterrupted openness in which we are invited to partake …


Poppy field at Argenteuil: separate objects


Poppy field at Argenteuil: object-subject-oneness “The subject-matter is broken down, reconstituted in a configuration of manifest, fragmented brush-strokes”

Bion in turn wrote about artists digesting their ‘sense impressions’, digesting them, and presenting the result so these impressions can be digested by others. ‘Suppose a painter sees a path through a field sown with poppies and paints it: at one end of the chain of events is the field of poppies, at the other a canvas with pigment disposed on its surface,’ Bion wrote at the start of his book, Transformations. In transforming his impressions of a poppyfield into a painting Monet was similar, argued Bion, to psychoanalysts transforming their impressions of what goes on between themselves and their patients in their work together into interpretations.

‘The best analytic interpretations are works of art,’ emphasised Stokes. This is only true, however, suggested Bion, provided psychoanalysts experience what he called ‘at-one-ment’ and Stokes called ‘oneness’ with the otherness of what goes on between themselves and their patients – a proviso Bion added long after he too, like Stokes, had fallen in love.

36935Janet Sayers


After leaving Dartington Hall School (where Adrian Stokes also spent time in the 1930s), and after studying philosophy and psychology at Cambridge, and clinical psychology at the Tavistock Clinic in London, Janet Sayers moved to Canterbury where she works for the NHS and teaches, as emeritus professor of psychoanalytic psychology, at the University of Kent. Her most recent book Art, Psychoanalysis, and Adrian Stokes: A Biography is published this week by Karnac Books. 



Adrian Stokes‘s psychoanalytic treatment by Melanie Klein, which began in early January 1930, contributed to his developing an innovative and influential “carving aesthetic”, through which he was acknowledged by the art historian Alan Bowness (a later director of the Tate Gallery) as being one of Britain’s ‘most original and creative’ art writers.  In 1929 Klein had presented a paper on art and psychoanalysis in which she described a Scandinavian artist, Ruth Kjär, as inspired by her inner emptiness to paint pictures of maternal figures as destroyed and made whole again. Influenced perhaps by similar interpretations of his own psychology during the first weeks of his treatment, Stokes began an essay in which he praised the capacity of painting to bring together as a whole ‘all the aspects that a man can present’ in ‘a single glance’.  In January 1934, Stokes drew on his carving aesthetic to promote artist (and close friend) Barbara Hepworth’s contribution to a revolution in modern sculpture in Britain, which rejected representational or romantic, fantasy-led art in favour of abstraction.

A major exhibition of Barbara Hepworth’s work is currently on show at Britain, London (24 June – 25 October 2015), featuring some of her most significant sculptures in wood, stone, and bronze alongside rarely-seen works. For more information visit Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World

2 thoughts on “Love, Art, and Psychoanalysis: Janet Sayers explores ‘at-one-ment’ in the work of Adrian Stokes

  1. Pingback: Psychoanalysis Online: Jill Savege Scharff discusses the impact of technology on development, training, and therapy |

  2. Pingback: Cultivating a new Metaphor: Smita Rajput Kamble unearths the secrets of therapeutic growth |

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