A nov­el­ist’s eye for the story of a paint­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephanie Bishop

Keep­ing an Eye Open: Es­says on Art By Ju­lian Barnes Jonathan Cape, 288pp, $45 I once had an artist friend who, when vis­it­ing a gallery, re­fused ever to read the ti­tle of a paint­ing or the blurb that ac­com­pa­nied its dis­play. The words got in the way of her en­counter with the art, she said: they shaped her in­ter­pre­ta­tion. His­tory, bi­og­ra­phy, mo­ti­va­tion — all this noise mud­died the trans­mis­sion of feel­ing.

Ju­lian Barnes likes his words too much to re­sist them com­pletely. Nev­er­the­less, he seeks some­thing sim­i­lar, the “rare pic­ture that stuns, or ar­gues us into si­lence”. The best paint­ing forces a mo­men­tary ver­bal re­prieve, although the lull never lasts long: “It is only a short time,” Barnes writes, “be­fore we want to ex­plain and un­der­stand the very si­lence into which we have been plunged.”

Keep­ing an Eye Open, a col­lec­tion of the Man Booker Prize-win­ning nov­el­ist’s es­says on paint­ings, doc­u­ments the af­ter­math of such di­rect en­coun­ters. Lan­guage floods back in, as­sess­ing style, query­ing bi­og­ra­phy, ruminating on an artist’s aims and am­bi­tions.

The book brings to­gether pieces pre­vi­ously pub­lished else­where, start­ing with a chap­ter on Ger­i­cault, lifted from Barnes’s 1986 novel A His-

May 30-31, 2015 tory of the World in 10½ Chap­ters, then pro­gress­ing to­wards the con­tem­po­rary via a se­ries of artists in­clud­ing Delacroix, Cezanne and Bon­nard.

It is not a col­lec­tion that pur­sues a par­tic­u­lar ques­tion. Un­like the art crit­i­cism of fel­low nov­el­ist John Berger, which hunts out the philo­soph­i­cal vi­sion of an artist, or the more ex­per­i­men­tal writ­ings of art his­to­rian TJ Clark, Barnes’s art es­says are a por­ous ex­change be­tween the sa­lon gos­sip and a learned tour guide. Read­ing th­ese pieces, one has the sense of chat­ting with Barnes in front of a can­vas. We move swiftly from one paint­ing to an­other, mak­ing rough progress from ro­man­ti­cism through to mod­ernism, the tour cul­mi­nat­ing with con­tem­po­rary paint­ings clearly in­debted to modernist ex­per­i­ment.

As we progress, sim­i­lar pre­oc­cu­pa­tions arise. Each es­say de­vel­ops two paths of thought. There is, in the first in­stance, an im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the art­work, with Barnes ad­dress­ing aes­thetic ques­tions to do with style, sub­ject and com­po­si­tion. Then there is an odd twist, as the es­says in­tro­duce bi­o­graph­i­cal knowl­edge and milk it for gos­sipy de­tail. “Can we de­duce … a painter’s … mar­i­tal state from their work? Was Cezanne a dis­ap­prov­ing prude? Does De­gas’s pur­chase of con­doms dis­pute his ap­par­ent ‘lack of amorous means’? Did you know that Bon­nard mar­ried Marthe af­ter Re­nee shot her­self in a ho­tel room?”

Such di­gres­sions re­veal a nov­el­ist’s in­ter­est in messy hu­man re­la­tions, in ques­tions of mo­ti­va­tion and sub­plot. Barnes is cu­ri­ous about the story a paint­ing tells and the se­crets it hides. But bi­o­graph­i­cal cu­rios­ity plays an awk­ward role: it is a vice Barnes can’t quite re­sist. Bi­o­graph­i­cal knowl­edge changes how we think about an artist’s work, a risk Barnes is aware of: bi­og­ra­phy “in­fects”, he writes, bi­og­ra­phy “stains”. Once we know about Marthe and Re­nee, can we con­tinue to look upon a Bon­nard in­te­rior as a scene of lan­guorous do­mes­tic bliss?

The in­tru­sion of bi­og­ra­phy and the spec­u­la­tion it en­cour­ages means that the pain­ters Barnes dis­cusses come to re­sem­ble char­ac­ters in a fic­tion. Their se­crets are un­veiled, any odd be­hav­iours noted, ev­i­dence of de­sire is raked over. As a re­sult, the tex­ture of th­ese es­says is thrillingly un­even. Barnes moves eas­ily across many works, plung­ing in at points of great­est change within an artist’s oeu­vre. Bi­og­ra­phy sur­prises, but along­side this is a lu­cid and mov­ing dis­cus­sion of each painter’s devel­op­ment.

Among the high­lights is a chap­ter on Bon­nard and his glo­ri­ous break­out into “bright hot­ness”, his pal­ette newly de­fined by yel­low, or­ange and green, pink and pur­ple. Barnes re­counts that as Bon­nard’s colours grew, his fo­cus nar­rowed, the sub­ject mat­ter re­stricted to the brightly lit in­te­rior and Marthe, Marthe, Marthe — painted, Barnes cal­cu­lates, 385 times. In so do­ing, Bon­nard be­came an artist of the “Great In­doors”, a painter of “do­mes­tic epipha­nies”, one for whom even land­scape is “viewed from the safety of the house” — “charged and static like an in­te­rior” with never a sign of wind.

Then there is the stand­out chap­ter on Lu­cian Freud and the devel­op­ment of his “sec­ond style”. It is a style de­fined by the loos­en­ing of brush­work, by an eye at­tuned to rep­re­sen­ta­tions of mor­tal­ity and dom­i­nated by Freud’s de­sire to in­ten­sify na­ture un­til the pic­ture has “such force” that the paint­ing over­whelms the real with which it be­gan.

Barnes’s fi­nale is an ex­tra­or­di­nary piece on Howard Hodgkins. As if in re­sponse to Hodgkins’s ab­stract can­vases, the es­say form it­self breaks apart. Rather than nar­rat­ing an artist’s story and the story of their work, the piece reads as a se­ries of ob­ser­va­tions, thoughts and anec-

Ju­lian Barnes

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