Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art
Knopf, 2015, 288 pp., $30
Julian Barnes is usually associated with intelligent, mesmerizing works of fiction such as Flaubert’s Parrot, Pulse, and The Sense of an Ending, but he has also written extensively on art, especially painting. This will not surprise anyone who has read his novels closely; what is unusual is his capacity for humor and insight, given that the field of art criticism often takes itself far too seriously for its own good. Keeping an Eye Open is about just what the title implies: that in looking at art, the most important thing is to, well, look at the art.
The 17 essays of the book, collected from an eclectic mix of publications, cover a great deal of ground, but Barnes says early in the piece that he has a particular interest in the story of how art made its way from Romanticism to Realism and on to Modernism—that is, from about 1850 to around 1920 (although he is quite willing to venture into more recent times). He is interested in how painting came to be about painting, rather than history, religion or propaganda. He sees Gericault and his The Raft of the Medusa as something of a starting point, examining how the painter shuffled around the facts of the real case to suit the needs of a narrative painting (the essay originally appeared in Barnes’ 1989 novel The History of the World in 10½ Chapters). The critics of the time did not take the idea well, but Gericault had set a process in motion and it was picked up by Courbet and Delacroix. And Manet as well: his The Execution of Maximilian is really a painting about character, structure, and drama posing as a political event.
Bonnard, whom Barnes regards highly for the humility of his approach and the vibrancy of his palette, took the same idea into portraiture, focusing not on likeness but on essence. Barnes traces a line from him up to Lucien Freud, probably one of the most irascible and arrogant painters to have ever picked up a brush but redeemed by his determination to cut through to the heart and soul of his subject, to find what was there and portray it, even if it was not a pretty thing to look at (and perhaps especially so). In the case of Freud it can be difficult to separate the painter from his output, although we are obliged to try. Freud might be a fascinating fellow, in a horrible sort of way, but he demands that his paintings be judged in their own terms, as paintings of people, and Barnes agrees (this would probably be the only thing the two of them would ever agree on). The essay on Freud is also notable for Barnes’ invention of the word ‘flaubertising’, which comes with a story of its own. When a writer is comfortable enough with his material to go with an interpretation like this, it encourages the reader to accompany him for the ride.
To say that Barnes is concerned with paintings as paintings is not to say that he is not interested in ideas. The essay on Magritte is affectionate, in part because Barnes likes the way that Magritte refuses to sit neatly in one or another category. There is an appealing cleverness to Magritte, a strangeness that is playful without being coy. In Magritte’s time, theories of art were already beginning to overtake practice, and his enduring images—a huge egg in a birdcage, apples in places where apples should not be, inside-out skies and bowler-hatted men—were a way of saying that painting can be a conversation, and a very enjoyable one, rather than a clash of aesthetic ideologies.
Perhaps this is why Barnes is skeptical of Pop Art, although his essay on Oldenburg (titled “Good Soft Fun”) is not without its sense of appreciation. Barnes points out that Pop Art has not dated well, and these days can look a bit silly. Once one has got the idea of a giant bicycle or a hamburger made of cloth—understood the self-referentiality, laughed at the inside-ness of the joke, accepted the irony—there isn’t much there. Irony is not the same as subtlety (although pop artists might not grasp the distinction), and it is subtlety that keeps taking us back to Gericault, Manet, Degas, Braque, and, yes, Freud and Hodgkin as well.
Barnes is too polite to say so, but one suspects that he has little time for people who call themselves artists but who cannot paint a decent apple. Cezanne, he says, could paint an apple, and did so, and thereby told us something (maybe everything) about the world. Seeing it is largely a matter of keeping an eye open.
In the end, this is a remarkable book, articulate without a trace of pretension. It is worth reading slowly—unusual in this time of ours—to follow the connections and let the larger story unfold. Barnes clearly loves his subject, and equally loves good writing. So enjoy it as you would enjoy a fine painting, one you can see again and again, and see anew each time.