Julian Barnes says that, while he “has taught himself a fair amount about painting over fifty years,” he “only really has one shot in his locker about each painter.” He told me this on a recent afternoon, at his home in London. We were talking about his new book, “Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art,” a selection of articles that previously appeared in a variety of publications over the last few decades. “When I get asked to, say, review a biography of Braque or go and see a show of Manet, I think, I’ve only got one go at this, because I don’t have more than that amount of thoughts about the person,” he said.
Barnes did not study art in school. He leaves his perch near the Hampstead Heath and visits the Courtauld Institute, in central London, from time to time. He also goes to museums when he travels for readings. The pieces in the book are “intended to address the reader who enjoys art in the same way that I do, and isn’t a professional and isn’t an academic and doesn’t have a theory to promote,” he said. “So, in a way—in that way—they relate to my fiction, which I also think of as being companionable and untheoretical.”
The first piece in the new book can also be found, in fact, among his fiction: “Géricault: Catastrophe into Art” is part of “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters,” Barnes’s 1989 book, typically classified as a novel. (There, the piece is titled “Shipwreck.” It also ran as a story in this magazine.) The essay concerns Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-1819), which depicts the 1816 wreck of a French naval frigate. Géricault does not show the final scene of rescue, but rather a previous almost-rescue, and he shows the men on the boat as strong and energetic, rather than as the tired, defeated, starving men they surely were. According to Barnes, Géricault’s painting has misinformed our understanding of the event ever since. “It is because the figures are sturdy enough to transmit such power that the canvas unlooses in us deeper, submarinous emotions,” Barnes writes. “The painting has slipped history’s anchor.”
What is most striking about the essay is Barnes’s detailed accounting of Géricault’s many artistic choices: he considers what Géricault could have chosen to paint, what each choice would have implied, and why, finally, Géricault painted what he did. The whole thing is shot through with the obvious admiration of one artist for the craftsmanship of another. The actual Medusa was famously visited by a white butterfly, which Géricault did not include in the painting; had he included it, Barnes writes, “it wouldn’t look like a true event, even though it was; what is true is not necessarily convincing.” Later in the essay, he adds: “Truth to life, at the start to be sure; yet once the progress gets under way, truth to art is the greater allegiance.”
Reading Barnes’s critiques one after another, it is tempting to see in them the preferences that shape his own work. Barnes takes issue, for instance, with painters whom he finds flashy and “noisy.” He prefers Braque to Picasso. (“Braque knew that he couldn’t do everything, and didn’t want to be everything,” Barnes writes in an essay first published in the London Review of Books. “He painted. That was what he did.”) In conversation, he cited “that killing remark that Braque made: ‘Picasso used to be a great painter. Now he is merely a genius.’ Oh! I think it’s kind of right.” He continued, “I think Picasso’s great period was the Cubist period, which was when he was working with Braque, and, I think, he—Braque—painted paintings; Picasso painted Picassos.”
Still, Picasso, Barnes said, “looks like the most incredibly high-minded, shy, reclusive, uninterested [artist] compared to some around now. In America and around the rest of the world, there are people that think Jeff Koons is a great artist, for example. I think there are fewer people now than five or ten years ago who think that Damien Hirst is a great artist. On the other hand, you know, he’s a brilliant marketer, as is Koons. They could teach Picasso a thing or two. On the other hand, Picasso could teach both of them almost everything.”
A majority of the book’s pieces are about French painters whose careers began in the late nineteenth century or afterward. In putting it together, Barnes writes in the introduction, he found that the collection retraced the story of “how art (mainly French art) made its way from Romanticism to Realism and into Modernism.” He levels a number of verdicts along the way: he finds Manet’s work uneven; Degas is not the misogynist he’s made out to be; and the work of the sole American artist Barnes considers at length, the Swedish-born Claes Oldenburg, is lacking in substance, “a visual gargle.”
As I got up to leave Barnes’s house, late in the afternoon, I noticed a sleek, framed painting, above a stack of books. Barnes lit up when I asked him about it. It is a large watercolor called “Hastings Pub,” which portrays the inside of the Cambridge Arms public house, and its crowd, a group of brightly dressed revelers, seem to be dancing or, at least, gyrating. The Englishman Edward Burra painted it in 1971, Barnes informed me.
“Burra was an odd cove who would just suddenly go missing for weeks and you never asked him where he was going or what he was doing, and then he’d reappear,” Barnes said. Then, taking a sharp breath and cracking a smile, he added, “He didn’t think anyone should talk about art, you should just do it—and then you should look at it.”
Flaubert expressed a similar opinion, Barnes notes in the introduction to “Keeping an Eye Open.” “Flaubert believed that it was impossible to explain one art form in terms of another, and that great paintings required no words of explanation,” he writes. But Barnes, of course, disagrees. “It is a rare picture which stuns, or argues, us into silence,” he writes. “And if one does, it is only a short time before we want to explain and understand the very silence into which we have been plunged.”
The subjects here are chosen somewhat arbitrarily, the result, mostly, of journalistic assignments. But taken together, they tell the story of how artists (mainly, French) moved from Romanticism to Realism to Modernism. He traces the shifting values we place on the sort of transformations — subtle, grand, surreal, satirical — these painters worked on reality, while examining the mysterious dynamic between individual artists’ gifts and an emerging cultural zeitgeist.
Mr. Barnes succinctly evokes the contradictions embodied by Delacroix: a member of that generation of French Romantics who were inspired by Shakespeare and Byron, but who also esteemed Voltaire and Mozart — a “self-defended man who feared passion and valued above all tranquillity,” but whose art spoke of “extravagance, passion, violence, excess.”
He describes the self-promoting Courbet — “a great painter, but also a serious publicity act” — as “an in-your-face Realist,” whose family motto might well have been “Shout loud and walk straight.” And he asserts that much as Manet made Courbet seem part of the tradition, so would Cézanne make Manet feel like a part of the fast receding past.
The speed with which these changes occurred is breathtaking in retrospect: how quickly the Cubists and many who followed “took over, absorbed and cannibalized Cézanne.” “He is where modern art — even Modern Art — begins,” Mr. Barnes writes. Yet today, on the walls of the great museums, he fits smoothly into what has become part of the historical continuum.
These may not exactly be new or revelatory insights, but one appeal of “Keeping an Eye Open” is that Mr. Barnes does not write as a scholar, but as an avid and thoughtful amateur — adept at conveying a tactile sense of a painting and its emotional penumbra, and its philosophical subtext, too. Of Courbet’s “L’Atelier,” Mr. Barnes notes that its depiction of the painter working on a landscape (in a studio, not en plein-air) implies that Courbet is “doing more than merely reproducing the known, established world — he is creating it anew himself.”
In another chapter, he wryly observes that portraits created by Cézanne, who once exhorted a model to be still “like an apple,” were really still lifes, “governed by color and harmony,” not depictions of “human beings who do normal human things like talk, laugh and move.” As for Magritte, Mr. Barnes points out that he tweaked the Surrealist method of opposing completely unrelated objects by juxtaposing (or substituting) related ones (like an egg for a bird).
Mr. Barnes can be blunt, even snarky in articulating his tastes in art; he writes that Warhol “is an artist rather as Fergie is a Royal.” But, at heart, his essays are animated by his keen, appraising eye, and a wellspring of common sense. He dismisses critics who have discerned a misogyny in Degas’s work — based, it seems, on rumors of his own absent love life — when, as Mr. Barnes points out, his radiant studies of dancers and bathers make it clear that he “plainly loved women” in his art. He also turns out to be shrewd in reminding us how Picasso — whose life seemed vulgar and egotistic in comparison to, say, Cézanne’s — now appears high-minded in contrast to “the most ‘successful’ artists of the 21st century, flogging their endless versions of the same idea to know-nothing billionaires.”
Though this volume contains lots of illustrations, one wishes there were even more of the paintings Mr. Barnes discusses. He writes about them so vividly, comments so astutely on small details of light and space and color, that we find ourselves reading the book with an iPad or laptop on hand, Googling images of the works he has so eloquently and ardently described.Continue reading the main story