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1922 The "Materials of Modern Composition" in Spiritual Art

Marianne Stokes’ painting Devaki, Mother of Krishna speaks to several of the prevalent themes of the 1922 Summer Exhibition, joining a small but arresting number of works that depict religious subjects in a fairly experimental way (Fig. 1). These include: The Watchers at the Sepulchre by R. Anning Bell, which deploys abstraction to create a scene of serene stillness; and E. Reginald Frampton’s wistful The Nativity, which uses elongated figures and flat panes to create an effect similar stained glass (Fig. 2). In 1932, Pope Pius XI condemned religious art with a modern character as disfiguring and profane, and it was not until 1947 that Pope Pius XII approved abstraction as an acceptable manifestation of praise.1 Yet these works exhibited twenty-five years earlier show many artists, including Roman Catholic Stokes, attuning the “materials of modern composition” to spiritual practice.2

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Unlike the many other religious works exhibited, Stokes’ “mother and child” is not of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but shows the Indian deity Krishna as an infant in his mother’s arms. According to Hindu teaching, Devaki was the sister of Kasma, the “wicked king of Mathura”, who heard a prophecy that Devaki’s child would destroy him and so tried to kill all of her children.3 The infant Krishna was smuggled across the Yamuna River to Gokula (now Gokul), where he was raised by Yoshoda and her husband Nanda, the leader of the local cowherds. From these humble origins, Krishna grew up to become one of the most widely known Indian deities. He is worshipped as an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu, but is also popular as a “supreme god in his own right”.4

The work bears striking resemblances to Stokes’ earlier Madonna and Child (1907–1908), which shows Mary with a golden halo (transparent in this case), gold detailing on her clothes, and white drapery around her face. Like Devaki, Mary’s head is augmented against delicately detailed flora, and both mothers are set against a sapphire blue background. In this way, Stokes draws attention to the universal theme of motherhood, and to similar stories of the Virgin birth (in some versions of religious texts both Devaki and Mary are identified as virgins), and the persecution of her child. A critic from The Connoisseur singled out Devaki as an “unconventional work”, praising Stokes’ “sympathetic and decorative interpretation of the theme”.5 Stokes may have intended to highlight the similarities between the Hindu and Christian subjects, while at the same time attempting to depict an identifiably Indian landscape.

Born in Graz, Austria, and trained in Munich and Paris, Stokes specialised in portraiture, often synthesising an interest in folk traditions and “proto-nationalistic themes” with symbolism.6 Stokes travelled extensively in Eastern Europe with her husband, co-publishing a volume of paintings produced during those visits in 1909, but there is no recorded connection to India. Based in England, she exhibited widely and had become a member of the Society of Painters in Tempera in 1905, specialising in this medium. Stokes’ use of tempera is another unusual element of Devaki, Mother of Krishna within the 1922 Summer Exhibition.

The title, and the symbols (including an elephant and lotus blossoms) which surround the subjects suggest that, unlike a generic religious scene labelled as an event or story, Stokes intended her entry to be regarded as a portrait. In this sense, it makes an interesting disruption to the prevalent trends in portraiture in the 1922 Exhibition, where there are many depictions of young girls and women—often titled with their male relatives’ names—predominantly painted by men; and a good deal of portraits of elderly eminent men of letters and science, or martial leaders. Alongside Stokes’ fecund Asian goddess, other exceptions include two portraits of older women, one, Mrs Harold Pearson by Maud Hall Neale; and one of a young boy with his sister, Little Brother by Norah Neilsen Gray.

The genre-tweaking nature of many of the women painters’ submissions suggests they were looking for new territories to explore, yet often working within accepted aesthetic conventions or confines. Stokes was a committed campaigner for suffragist rights, and a woman of considerable education and travel, but the degree to which her depiction of a Hindu subject objectifies or even fetishises must be considered. In comparison to the provocative exoticism of several works from the same year, for example, The Enchantress by J.C. Dollman, Stokes’ beatific portrait of Devaki appears to be a genuinely empathetic attempt to connect with another culture.

  1. Pope Pius XI, “We Have Little”, 27 October 1932,, quoted in translation from Ludovica Sebregondi, “Reconciliation with the Sacred: Dialogues between Ancient and Modern Art”, in Lucia Mannini, Anna Mazzanti, Ludovia Sebregondi, and Carlo Sisi (eds), Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana, exhibition catalogue (Marsilio: Italy, 2016); the exhibition was at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 24 September 2015–24 January 2016.↩︎

  2. Pope Pius XII, “Mediator Dei”, verse 195, 20 November 1947,↩︎

  3. The Editors, “Krishna”, Encyclopædia Britannica,↩︎

  4. The Editors, “Krishna”, Encyclopædia Britannica.↩︎

  5. “The Subject in Art—a Glance through the Royal Academy Pictures, ‘Current Art Notes’”, The Connoisseur (June 1922): 112.↩︎

  6. Magdalene Evans, Utmost Fidelity: The Painting Lives of Marianne and Adrian Stokes (Bristol: Sansom & Co., 2009), 8.↩︎

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